Children's Books - Where Have all the Good Dads Gone?

Filed under: Books for Kids

Are dads treated unfairly in children's books?. Image: John Flinchbaugh on Flickr

Dads today are more involved in child care and family life than ever. They change diapers, they wake for midnight feedings and sometimes, they're even the stay-at-home parent or primary caregiver. So why then, asks British dad Damon Syson, are all the dads in children's books so lame?

Take Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," says Syson in an article at the Times Online: "He [Pa Pig] falls asleep, having promised to drive. He fails to change a flat tire, leaving his wife to do it. He gets sunburnt, despite her warnings. It's an image of the lazy, feckless, unreliable paterfamilias echoed in various TV sitcoms. He is practically a porcine Homer Simpson."

In fact, Syson says that in his own collection of over 100 picture books, dads showed up in only nine. And just five of those portrayed fathers in a positive light. "When they do appear," says Syson of fictional fathers, "They are often withdrawn and ineffectual. In spite of today's shifting parenting roles, books aimed at pre-school children still tend to depict the mother as the sole or primary care provider. Fathers are absent, silly or just plain busy."

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As a mom of girls, I'm constantly on the lookout for positive female role models -- whether their girls, moms or women in general -- in books and movies. It never crossed my mind that dads might be underrepresented. So I did a very quick survey of our downstairs bookshelf to see what our collection looks like.

Of the twelve titles I pulled out, here's what I found:

  • Four of the books were mother/child stories only, "Stellaluna" and "Skippy Jon Jones," for example.
  • Three portrayed dad in a stereotypical way, either off working or not involved in childcare. In "Pirates Don't Change Diapers," dad takes a nap while mom runs to the store, for instance.
  • In five of the books, dads were either the only other character, ("We're Going on a Bear Hunt"), or were taking an equal role in parenting -- "Knufflebunny" and "Lily's Purple Plastic Purse."

Not exactly scientific, but not exactly evidence of a problem either -- at least in our house. So I turned to the source, our resident bedtime book reader. "Hey," I asked my husband, "Have you ever had a problem with the way dads are represented in books?"

"Nope."

Okay then. Even though this doesn't seem to be a problem at our house, I'm very familiar with how frustrating it can be when role models are in short supply. Syson's experts say there are a few reasons why dads might not show up in their kids' books:

1) Though dad-friendly topics are more popular than ever, domestic books are not.
2) Dads might read books to their kids, but it's still moms who are buying them.
3) Older books, such as Syson's Scarry books, reflect a snapshot of society. When "Cars and Trucks" was written, publishers were being careful to depict women in traditionally male roles.

What about your child's book collection -- do you see a problem with how dads are portrayed? Share your thoughts with us in comments.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.