The Commercialization of Fatherhood
By Jim McGaw

Are the Latest Resources for Dads Helpful, or Simply Patronizing?

What's new for dads?

Here’s a rundown of some of the newer products, Web sites and programs out there, as well as some time-honored favorites.

How Fatherhood Has Changed

"Does father know best?"
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Ever hear Woody Allen’s line about the two elderly women at a Catskills mountain resort? One of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one replies, “Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”

The joke could easily have applied to the state of resources available to fathers just 10 years ago: lousy, and not enough of them. But that’s all changing now. Finally, there are substantial resources available that are specifically tailored to dads seeking advice and guidance in parenting matters unique to men. The commercialization of fatherhood is fast becoming a cottage industry.

Still, experts say, too few dads are taking advantage of these resources and those who do often find themselves patronized by trite or shallow advice that presumes a father’s lesser standing as a parent. For every substantial book, Web site or program that truly helps dads, there a half-dozen others that not only say, “Father doesn’t know best,” but that, in fact, he doesn’t know squat.

Among the typical fare out there for dads, there’s the recently published book, The New Dad’s Survival Guide, which offers “critical survival tips” to new and expectant fathers. It includes the statement that attending childbirth classes with the “FPP” (female parenting partner) is crucial in preventing “a major freak-out when a human pops out of your FPP’s private parts.” Then there’s the “Daddy Diaper Duty Emergency Tool Kit,” a humorous packaging of diaper-changing accessories complete with a face mask, rubber gloves, protective goggles and tongs.

Then there’s How Men Have Babies: The Pregnancy Father’s Survival Guide, in which celebrity TV dad Alan Thicke goes overboard in trying to bond with dads, as if he were kicking back with them over beers at the bar. “Playoff babies are born with a chip on their shoulder, knowing daddy wished they’d waited,” is a typical quip. The book is filled with anecdotes from other showbiz celebrities (Tom Arnold and Howie Mandell among them), as well as irrelevant statistics that will leave you scratching your head (“Fact: The rich say they’ll pay $640,000 for a place in heaven.”) In short, you’ll be lucky if you survive the punch lines.

More than ever, men need to take a tip from their wives and be shrewd consumers. Choosing a good book or program for dads can be a daunting task, and sometimes, as fathering advocate Ken Canfield puts it, “You need to chew up the chicken and spit out the bones.”

As founder and president of the National Center for Fathering, Canfield sees nearly every dad-related product sent to his organization in hopes of gaining an endorsement. He calls the recent surge in products marketed toward dads the “commercialization of fatherhood” – a trend he reluctantly embraces.

Resources Still Playing Catch-up

Psychologist Richard Solomon lectures frequently on fathering issues and co-authored a book on the importance of involved fathers, Child Maltreatment and Paternal Deprivation (Lexington Books, 1986). He believes that the greater availability of resources indicates that dads are no longer being thought of as a secondary appendage.

“The mere existence of a real emerging literature for dads augurs so well,” he says. “Its availability is far greater than what we had just seven to 10 years ago.”

But, he says, it’s clear that many books and other resources have yet to catch up to the needs of today’s fathers. “We’re probably at the beginning of establishing literature for dads that’s meaningful and relevant,” Solomon says.

There’s a price to be paid for any new market, no matter how great the need: those bones that have to be spit out. Too many books, in particular, seem to either condescend to dads, use Dave Barry-esque humor to impart advice, or both. And judging by their titles and tone, pregnancy and the first few months of fatherhood are things to be survived, not cherished.

Canfield isn’t surprised that so many parenting books seem to condescend to dads. “I think it mirrors the way society looks at fathers,” he says, adding that many TV shows are guilty of portraying dads as mere “doofuses.”

What about the military theme that runs through so many fathering resources? Ask Steve Dubin, a “drool sergeant” – hands-off group facilitator for you civilians – in the Boot Camp for New Dads program. This community-based program offers hands-on training – using real “stunt babies,” the children of fathers who have already “graduated” from the program – for fathers-to-be at more than 200 locations throughout the nation.

The group’s name came from founder Gary Bishop, who felt that “guys would only be attracted to something that was both macho and fun,” says Dubin.

A Shop Just for Dads

Even well-meaning ventures can stumble in the daddy sensitivity department. That aforementioned diaper emergency tool kit can be found in an online store,, which Lynne Builta started up in response to fathers who were shopping on her 5-year-old

“They’d ask, ‘What about us dads?’ We saw a trend in products addressed specifically to dads, so we decided to open a shop just for them,” Builta says.

One of the store’s biggest sellers is the “Diaper Dude,” which includes a changing pad, cell phone holder, key ring holder and features a more masculine design. “(Men) don’t want to carry around a pink flower bag,” Builta says.

Fair enough. But just a few mouse clicks away and you’ll find that “Daddy Diaper Duty Emergency Tool Kit.”

When asked if any men have complained that the emergency kit singles out dads as unable to handle the task of changing a baby’s diaper, Builta says no. “That’s interesting,” she says. “That’s not something I’ve really thought about. That’s something we really try to avoid. We don’t want to ridicule anyone.”

Builta acknowledges that the kit is purchased mainly by women as gifts for fathers, which brings up another point: Who’s really buying this stuff? One could assume after scanning customer reviews at that more women are actually buying books geared toward dads. Like the tree-falling-in-the-forest riddle, does a fathering book exist if dads aren’t reading it?

“Talk to any publisher and they’ll tell you that, I would say, 70 percent of the books are purchased by either women or agencies working with men,” says Canfield. “Why is it that we don’t have a Fathering magazine? The market isn’t there right now.”

Solomon says he’s also frustrated that more dads don’t take advantage of the resources available to them.

“I still can’t say we’ve made great gains in that area,” he says, pointing out that even today, too many dads don’t open up about parenting issues or take an active role in childbirth preparation. “A lot of dads still feel that that’s the primary domain of the wife.”

Opening the Floodgates of Dads’ Emotions

But perhaps the tide is turning. Dubin notes that one of the keys to Boot Camp for New Dads’ success is the program’s “locker room” mentality. Men tend to speak more freely about their excitement and anxieties when they’re in the same boat as other dads-to-be, he says.

Otherwise, he says, “guys usually tend to stick to sports and bitch about their wives, when they really want to talk about what it’s going to be like when they’re a dad: Will they ever have romance again? How will they pay for this new person? How do you choose the child’s religion?”

And bottling up those questions and emotions is unhealthy for prospective fathers, says Michael Crider. He let everything out when writing his book, The Guy’s Guide to Surviving Pregnancy, Childbirth and the First Year of Fatherhood, while anxiously awaiting the birth of his son, Ryan.

The project didn’t start off as a book, he says; rather, it was to be a chronicle of Ryan’s life. But Crider decided that his diary was funnier and more honest than the other books for new dads that he was seeing.

“Lots of books I read were either too clinical or too cartoon-like. They didn’t speak to the new father,” he says.

Crider took pains to be honest about his conflicted feelings on fatherhood because he knew other dads would be able to relate. “I mean, there are some awesome times when I can’t stop hugging and kissing this guy [Ryan] and then there are other times when I want to throw him out the window, or throw myself out the window,” jokes Crider.

He’s banking on the idea that a new generation of dads – Crider is 34 – are more open to talking about their identities as fathers. “I’m hoping The Guy’s Guide will jump-start some conversations,” he says.

Support Wanes for Fathering Programs

But despite the emergence of much-needed resources for fathers, Canfield warns that all is not well for many dads throughout the country. He and other advocates in the trenches have seen federal funds for local programs promoting responsible fatherhood dry up in recent years.

“The state of the field is not flourishing right now. It’s struggling, particularly for the most difficult fathering situations,” he says, referring to the lack of much-needed support and resources for single dads struggling to maintain a connection with their children.

Hopefully, the explosion of consumer-oriented products geared toward fathers will help fill in at least some of the gaps, says Crider. “I don’t like it that way, but if it’s commercialization, then that’s the way we’ve got to do it. Any time we help a dad in America be more effective in his role and more attached to the fathering privilege, the better we’re going to fare as a country.”

What's new for dads?
Here’s a rundown of some of the newer products, Web sites and programs out there, as well as some time-honored favorites.