my dad vs tv dads

Study: Real fathers fail to measure up to televised versions

By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY
Fathers in the USA are a lot less supportive and accepting than TV sitcom dads, even falling short of the low bar set by Homer Simpson, a study of college students' views suggests.

Many young people blame constant work demands — seldom portrayed on TV — for draining their fathers' energy and time from parenting, says Janice Kelly, a communications researcher at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.

She showed episodes from eight comedies to 108 college students. The programs were as diverse as The George Lopez Show, The Simpsons, My Wife and Kids and Everyone Loves Raymond. She asked the students to rate TV fathers and their own on such qualities as support, guidance, acceptance of other family members and oppositional behavior (for example, ridiculing children). On every measure, TV fathers were rated significantly better than the students' own dads.

Comments invited during the study were revealing, Kelly says. One young person wrote: "My father works two jobs to support the family. I don't get to see him when he comes home, he's tired." Children from white-collar families portrayed their fathers as tethered to BlackBerrys and e-mail, fearful of losing their jobs. "One girl said: 'So that's why he makes pancakes on the weekend. He feels guilty,' " Kelly says.

Everyone knows TV isn't life, "but still, the real dad is being judged poorly compared to these television daddies," says Glenn Good, an expert in the psychology of men at the University of Missouri. "There's a lot of research showing these programs can create norms of what's right."

Many fathers see holding on to jobs as key to good parenting of their kids, he adds, but it's a challenging economic time. Men's real income from all sources fell from 2000 to 2005, according to U.S. government figures.

Several studies confirm that fathers are spending more time than ever on child care, says Vincent DiCaro of the non-profit National Fatherhood Initiative. It's unknown whether Gen X and Y fathers — born between 1965 and 1994 — will be seen as more nurturing than baby-boom fathers, DiCaro says. There's very little research on the parenting of earlier generations of men, he says.

Kelly says TV writers should show more of this true-life work/family conflict.

But that won't happen, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Working families are having a hard enough time balancing child care and jobs. Do you want to sit down and watch this at night? Most people would run away screaming."

To the contrary, Thompson says, family sitcoms already "are on life support," fast disappearing, because stressed-out viewers crave "anesthesia" in over-the-top "reality" and other escapist shows.

"It's disturbing to think that kids might judge their dad as worse than Homer Simpson," he says. "Ward Cleaver was one thing — nobody could measure up — but sitcom dads today are flawed at best."

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