Beating Up on Dad

Images of Fathers in Literature

It looks like a charming children’s story–three little bears on a scouting escapade. But who’s this? Papa Bear is coming along. And at every step of the way, Papa makes a complete fool of himself.

If he suggests the direction to take, it’s sure to end up in a swamp. If he makes the campfire stew, it’s sure to be awful.

What is this book teaching kids about fathers?

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday, I invite you to consider how our society views fatherhood. One of the most revealing places to look is in children’s literature.

The story I just described is from the highly popular Berenstain Bear series. In several of the books, Papa Bear is portrayed as a bumbling oaf. The sensible one in the family is Mama Bear.

In the story on junk food, Papa is the worst offender. It’s Mama who enforces the switch to a healthy diet. In the story on manners, again Papa is the worst offender. It’s Mama who enforces politeness.

Isn’t there anything Papa does best? Well, yes, he’s given one distinction. In a book on fitness, the children outdo Papa on every skill except one: Sister Bear can run the fastest, Brother Bear can jump the farthest, but when the exercise session is over, Papa Bear can sleep the longest.

Ha, ha. Let’s all have a good laugh at Papa’s expense.

This treatment of fathers is, sad to say, not the exception but the rule. A young father writing in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine complains that he has a terrible time finding books for his children that show fathers in a positive light.

Or that even show fathers at all. Remember Babar the elephant? When Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter, the baby elephant is pronounced an orphan. But wait a minute: Why is he an orphan? Doesn’t he have a father? Doesn’t his father care?

The same bias against dads carries over into books for teens. A survey of contemporary teen literature found that mother-headed families are in the majority.

Even when fathers are part of the story, they’re much more likely than mothers to be cruel and abusive. The few times fathers are portrayed as good, they’re nice but weak: They stand aside with a smile and let the teenager decide for himself what to do.

What will happen to a society where children’s imagination is filled with images of fathers who are oafs and fools? It’s no good saying this is all “just” fiction, the way people said recently about Murphy Brown. When children read story upon story with absent or abusive fathers, that can’t help but shape their expectations.

Psychologists recognize the emotional impact of books–so much so that there’s even a branch of counseling today called “bibliotherapy,” which uses story books to change children’s attitudes.

And if stories have power to do good, then clearly they have power to do harm.

No wonder the women’s movement has worked so hard to change the image of women in children’s books. And the civil rights movement has worked to root out negative images of black people. Maybe it’s time to start a movement for fathers.


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