Can Young Fathers Think in Generative Terms?

The term generativity was coined by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to refer to the sense of concern and care for future generations and one's own legacy that people develop in adulthood. Generativity is a core aspect of the seventh stage of Erikson's eight stage theory of human development.

According to the developmental timetable used by most theorists, generative thinking begins to emerge in the mid 20s and does not really come to the fore until midlife.

However, findings emerging from FIRA's Thematic Analysis suggest that men who become fathers during late adolescence show signs of generative thinking at ages younger than previously thought.

A core part of FIRA's five-year Community University Research Alliance project was the research clusters which conducted separate qualitative studies of seven sub-populations of fathers. However, interviews for each cluster included a set of common questions designed to elicit respondents' views on universal fatherhood issues such as how they learned about fathering, how they negotiate parenting with their partners, and how having children changed their outlook on life.

FIRA's Thematic Analysis Group, led by Dr. Kerry Daly, has done several analyses of thematic data that cuts across all clusters. Mike Pratt, professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, worked with post doctoral student Heather Lawford (WLU) and also Annie Devault (Université du Québec en Outaouais) and Anna Dienhart (University of Guelph), on an analysis which showed that men who became fathers in their teens or very early 20s (17.5 % of FIRA's total sample in all clusters) expressed generative ideas that were surprisingly similar to their older counterparts.

" As I read the transcripts I was quite struck by some of the things the young fathers were saying," Pratt explains. "One young man said that after becoming a father he realized that love didn't simple revolve around him. Another said that becoming a father gave him a goal because once he had a child he had someone to look after other than himself."

When the group analyzed the data about generative thinking they found that young fathers often stated that having a child had transformed their lives in some positive way. They categorized the generative aspects of this thinking into three transformative themes

  • Finding a sense of purpose
  • Settling down
  • Overcoming hurt or past damage

Each of these themes described how becoming a parent helped the man move from bad events to good outcomes. This overall "redemptive" theme was, in fact, common to many of the men interviewed in FIRA's different clusters. In fact, a relatively high-proportion of men in arious clusters had experienced difficult circumstances of some kind during their fathering experience, such as having a child with special needs, being gay, or family trauma or disruption due to immigration, separation and divorce or the effects of residential schools on indigenous families.

According to conventional academic thinking about adult development, men are not expected to think in this way until their late 20s. "This study is the first clear qualitative data which document the phenomenon of generativity in younger men," says Pratt.

The theme of finding a purpose through fatherhood was especially significant for young dads, perhaps because issues of establishing identity are so salient for them, says Pratt.

"Obviously, there are all kinds of challenges and obstacles for these young men to overcome. But it seems that this difficult circumstance can lead in some ways to positive outcomes." Dan McAdams, of the psychology department at Northwestern University has argued that the effort to see how bad things can turn into good things is a common phenomenon in North American culture. Pratt says that when people are able to construct their life stories in this way, it can sustain them through a number of difficult circumstances. "Our findings suggest that this applies to youth to some extent, particularly young men who have become fathers," says Pratt. "That makes sense because feelings of concern for the future and next generation are an important part of forming one's identity and sense of purpose as a parent. It suggests that we need to come up with a more complex view about the development of generativity over the lifespan."

Lawford presented the group's findings last October at Father Involvement 2008, FIRA's international conference held in Toronto.

For more information, read Fatherhood as Life Transformation a Power Point document which can be accessed in our Resources section. (search by keyword or author name).

See also: Pratt, M. W., Lawford, J.L, and Allen, J. W. 2012.  Fatherhood, generativity and men’s development: Travelling a two-way street to maturity" in Daly, Kerry Joseph Eugene, and Jessica Ball, eds. Father Involvement in Canada: Diversity, Renewal, and Tranformation. UBC Press, 2012.