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.