Monday, April 4, 2011

the berenstain bears and father as dunce

It’s a well known fact that sitcoms make a living off making fun of fathers as the dunce of the show.  And I guess that’s Hollywood.  They aren’t known for filling us with fine moral values.

But recently, I’ve been thinking about how the “father as dunce” theme has found its way into even the most family-friendly places.  The Berenstain Bears.  Who of us as parents hasn’t read and treasured these books as kids and used them to help our own children through the transitions and learning experiences of life?

But have you ever noticed that Papa Bear is frequently the dunce in these favorite childhood books? 

For example, in The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners, it’s Mama who lays out the rules and punishments for bad manners.  The book says, “She tried going to Papa for help (though it sometimes seemed to Mama that he was part of the problem).”  Papa is supportive of Mama, but blind to his own poor manners.  “…it wasn’t so easy for Papa.  He was the one who got fed up.  It’s a little harder to change habits when you’re older, and he had to do quite a few chores for forgetting his manners.”  Yes, Papa resists Mama the whole way.  This wouldn’t be so bad if once in a while Mama could humorously do something wrong, thus showing that though neither parents are perfect, both are loving and want the best for Brother and Sister Bear.  But, no, it’s always Papa who has to be taught a lesson by Mama.  He’s just too dumb and ill-mannered to figure it out for himself.

In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV, Papa is the worst offender in overuse of the television.  He is the one who thinks Brother and Sister Bear have to take the week off from TV (at least he supports Mama in that), but that he can keep watching his game.  He is the one who at the end of the book, after Brother and Sister have learned their lesson and want to do other things besides TV, still plops in front of the tube and though he doesn’t stay there all day, he watches more than anyone else in the family.  He’s the one who least learns his lesson.  It’s all-knowing Mama who is the moral authority once again.

I understand the need for humor in these books and let’s face it, some dads do fall into these stereotypes.  I doubt that Stan and Jan Berenstain had anything against fathers.  I’m sure that they don’t want to turn kids against their dads.  And we still read the books regularly in our house.  Some of them let do Papa be the expert in something, and I understand that too.  But I read The Berenstain Bears now with questions in my head.  Questions like: do images like these in books and television shows make fathers feel like dopes?   Do they make kids treat their dads that way?

Are we so conditioned to the picture of Dad as the dunce that we don’t even notice it? 

Are we committed to the idea that Mom is the real smart parent and moral authority and that she runs the show?  Do we think dads have nothing to offer in the way of opinions about parenting, loving care, a different perspective from Mom? 

The parenting model made up of a partnership between husband and wife is popular, rather than viewing parenthood solely as the domain of the mother.  But do we mothers actually act like we believe that, or do we just mouth the words?  Do we act like our husbands are dummies without any knowledge of how to raise kids, without any insight to offer us?  Do we insist on doing everything ourselves because “he can’t do it right”?

Granted, because the young fathers of this generation might be the first ones in their families to do real hands-on fathering, having not learned it from their fathers because it was viewed as “women’s work,” we absolutely have a lot of knowledge and insight to impart that might not occur to dads naturally.  It doesn’t always come naturally to men to read the parenting books, or think about every little thing that we do.  And they don’t have the experience of carrying a baby in their womb and the deep connection between parent and child that that brings.  Once a baby is born, a father must take some time to get to know the child and develop that bonded relationship that has already begun between mother and child.  But fathers still have an important, irreplaceable role in their children’s lives.

Can’t we be more encouraging of their efforts to rise above the strict gender roles?  Can’t we be more of cheerleaders for them as they blaze a new trail as the pioneers of connected and involved fatherhood?  Can’t we take the time to listen to their input and at least consider it fairly?

Because a loving Dad is never a dunce.  He’s a parent in training.  Just like you and me.


  1. What you say is very true. I know that my husband's father didn't do any "hands on" fathering so he did not receive any mentoring. (In fact his dad claimed a "gag reflex" with regard to diaper changing in order to have an excuse to get out of it.)

    For the most part I am really proud of my husband because he is learning so much in such a short period of time. I still worry about going out and leaving him in charge of the baby remembering certain blunders that left me extremely upset- like the time he skipped a feeding when she was two months old and he let her go 8hrs with no bottle and the time he took the trash out and left her in the house alone at three months old. (We live in a condo so the trash is around the corner and six units down from ours) He is doing a lot of reading now but I still don't go out by myself much unless I come home and check in.

    I do recall that our childbirth instructor said not to criticize new dads and I confess I struggle. After all I couldn't in good conscience let him continue to leave the baby unattended in the house. The thing I have learned is that I do need to celebrate all the ways my spouse is a good parent because I think that makes all the difference in the world.

  2. One more reason why I'm happily single. :P

    On a more serious note, this is where blame quickly gets us. Why blame over what didn't happen? We take risks every day, and the dude probably held his tongue when you did something equally silly. :)

  3. I'm not a big fan of the new Bearnstein Bears books for this exact reason (still love most of the Spooky Old Tree era books). I'm glad you wrote about it. It reminds me of one of my biggest pet peeves in our society: the idea that anytime dad is alone with the kid(s) that dad is "babysitting." Ummmm, no. Dad is PARENTING.

  4. @ rrrarne- how right you are! It took us so long to have our sweet girl that I tend to be very protective of her and her daddy helps me because he laughs and asks me to relax, which I need to hear OFTEN:-) I actually think that between the two of us we balance each other and that this is the beauty of men and women parenting together.

  5. I just wrote a very long comment and the computer ate it. Blast you internet!
    My thoughts again...
    I think it's been different since I am now staying at home vs. when I was working. When you both work, it feels like the parenting duties are split more when you are home because so much at home has to be, it's all hands on deck.
    Things changed when I became a SAHM. The stereotypes are more present in our roles. I'm home with the kids all day, so they tend to come to me first with their needs, even if dad is home. It's a habit for them.
    Dustin comes home in the evening and usually handles bathtime for Ian while I am getting supper on, but other than that, I'm the main caregiver. It's not that he can't do it, but we are in a routine.
    @ Banana. One day, you will leave the house and not worry as much, you will do what I do. Run and giggle with glee.
    Does Dustin do it the same way I would? No. Unless we are working on correcting some behavior or trying to teach Ian something, then we make sure the other knows so we are both consistant.
    But every time I have come home...The kids have been alive. Dad's a little tired (I think it's good that he knows what I do all day, even if it's just for a few hours), but he appreaciates me more and is happy to have time with his kids, they are happy and I have a new attitude. I can't wait for Ian to run to me and give me hugs and kisses and Ella beams a smile at me so big that I melt.
    Dustin's a great dad, but how would he know that she get's cranky at 10:00 because she wants a bottle and right after that you lay her down in her crib with her puppy toy and she plays and then goes to sleep. He doesn't see the routine every day. Yet, if she misses that bottle, he'll figure it out, she won't starve because of one missed bottle, it will just take a bit go catch her up again.
    I don't know how single parents do it. I admire them because it's not easy, and I know it would be harder if I didn't have D around. D is gone two nights a week right now to teach an EMT class, I have to do bath and bedtime all by myself and I dread it. I've made it, but it's hard.
    I think, if anything, we should, as parents, tell each other how much we appreciate what they do and thank them when they do things that make life easier, even if we think they should do it anyway. Be supportive of one another. We work so hard to not judge other moms, but it's pretty easy to judge our spouse and they should get encouragement like we all need.

  6. Banana, I have had similar moments with my husband...but the truth is, like Lucinda says, when I come home baby/toddler is alive and fine. And like Arne says, there have been other moments when I have done something stupid and he has said nothing to criticize me. In fact, he has been overwhelmingly encouraging of me, faults and all.

    When we are talking about healthy, loving fathers (not abusive ones, of course), they really do get better and better as fathers. They really are parents in training just like us. It's amazing that any child survives ANY first-time parents.

    I struggle with judging too, but am getting better at trusting and encouraging. I really do appreciate my husband so much. I agree whole-heartedly with Lucinda in her final sentence, "We work so hard to not judge other moms, but it's pretty easy to judge our spouse and they should get all the encouragement like we all need." Amen!

  7. Janelle, that's really interesting to find somebody else who feels the same way about the books. I like what they teach about values, but the underlying Dad as dunce theme is something to be careful about. I always wonder what Stan Berenstain was thinking when he worked on the books.

    Also, love your comment about dad "parenting" not "babysitting"! Excellent!

  8. YEP. I have been saying the same thing for 15 years or more. I have 3 daughters and although my wife was a stay-at-home mom, I did a pretty good amount of "mothering" to my girls. I washed their hair, brushed it, braided it and pony-tailed it. Made dinner, made lunches, tucked in to bed, made up stories and yes, read Berenstain Bears and other books that portrayed "Dad" as a big idiot.

    REAL dads are not perfect, nor are mothers, but dang it, for guys to be portrayed time and time again, it does seem kinda like an easy shot at a group that has a lot to overcome. I have a whole routine based on how dads are shown in books and media.

    Ask my girls; they'll tell you that I was engaged, patient and pretty darn fun. And I am not a "Papa Bear".

    This was an excellent article!

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I think a lot of my view is informed by my husband's wonderful, involved example! There are so many great dads out there. I wonder if more men would rise to the challenge too if there were more good examples in the media they see. (I can barely think of good dad examples on TV, except The Cosby Show, which was AWESOME!) Anyway, I hope more stories can be written that show how awesome dads can be and don't make them the dummy of the story that moms have to straighten out.

      You said you have a routine about this area...Do you do some sort of a show? Would love to hear more!

      Also, I always wonder how folks find to share?

      Thanks again!

  9. We have forbidden the Berenstain Bears at our house. I do not allow the books into the door, and that comes with the full support of my husband. The children are not allowed to disrespect their father and I cannot disrespect my husband. He works all day long for our support and comes home tired each day. I am a stay home homeschooling mother. My husband, it must be said, does fall into the category of those who plop in front of the TV and I do often get frustrated, but he's supporting us and he's the head of the family. When something comes up that really frustrates me, I try not to think about it.

    I would get rid of all the Berenstain Bear books if I were you.

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