Monday, April 14, 2008

More Grousing About Children's Literature

Now that I have kids of my own, I'm rediscovering a lot of literature that I read when I was a kid. And occasionally, I'm discovering that I have very different opinions of these books now than I did then.

And no, this isn't because I'm having to read them over and over and over and over to insatiable toddlers. Well, it isn't only that.

Rather, I'm looking at the stories from the point of view of a daddy instead of a child. As a daddy, I'm very interested in how my children turn out--and to this end, I'm very interested in what kinds of messages they pick up in their literature. I don't just want to find them books that will help them to read, or spur their imaginations; I also want them to grow up to be good; I want them to grow up recognizing what the virtues are (courage, fortitude, honesty, etc.), and I want them to possess these virtues. In many cases this means that I have to put aside the "old standards" that I grew up with, and find something that cuts against the grain of our culture. After all, there's a lot of children's entertainment available that teaches kids how fun and rewarding it is to be completely disrespectful to their peers, their parents, their teachers, their government....

Now, this is not to say that I intend to keep my children away from literature with unpleasant themes. I've written about that here, here, and here. We're not going to try to protect our little darlings from meaty stories that might serve to disrupt their fragile little worlds. But we do wish to steer clear of literature or entertainment that would serve to glorify behaviors that we consider immature, disrespectful, or just plain wrong. Stories about--say--impatience are just fine, so long as they don't show the hero triumphing because of his or her impatience.

Why do I bring all this up?

Well, in the last year or so, I've been finding myself reading through the Berenstain Bears books a lot. This is pretty standard for parents of young kids, and has been for decades. We had many of these books at my house when I was growing up. The books have fun stories, fun rhymes, good illustrations, and are written at a reading level that makes them easily accessible to kids in the kindergarten-through-second grade range.

We have a few of these books ourselves, and occasionally the family will bring one or two home from the library. This week, they brought back The Bear Scouts, which is one that we had when I was a kid.

Oh, yeah! I remember this. I loved this as a kid! And I know what's coming next....

And of course the kids loved it too. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, it involves a troop of "Bear Scouts" going on a camping trip, on which they must consult the Guidebook at every step of the way so they don't get themselves in trouble in the great outdoors. The Pillowfight Fairy found this concept fascinating, and decided to make just such a guidebook--evidently in case she has to go somewhere exotic.
This is the guidebook. Incidentally, she decided to glue the binding instead of stapling it. It's a little uneven, but not bad. It could have been much worse, considering that Mommy was down for a nap at the time, and the Adrenaline Junkie had gotten up before Mommy and wanted to play with the glue too. We're fortunate we didn't have to unstick either of them from the table (or each other).
This is the map. If you go the short way, you don't get to the camping site--you get attacked by alligators. This happened to Papa Bear.

This is how you make a canoe. If you want to travel downstream without getting sucked into a whirlpool, you must make one of these canoes. Papa Bear didn't, and he had to be rescued by the Bear Scouts in their canoe.

This page shows two episodes from the book. The first one shows you how not to make a fire; if you do it this way (the way Papa Bear did), it will take all night--that's just what the Guidebook says. And the second page explains what one should eat when one goes camping. Do not try to make a stew from whatever herbs you root up at the campsite; Papa Bear did this, made something inedible, and wound up having to mooch fish from the industrious Guidebook-following Scouts.

And it's important to know how to build a proper tent. The Bear Scouts, who all followed the Guidebook, made their tents the right way. Papa Bear just went off to sleep in a nearby cave; he woke up all the bats, fell out of the cave, injured himself, and had to be stretchered out by all the Scouts.

Um... I seem to notice a pattern here....

In fact, this is the pattern in nearly all of the Berenstain Bear books. The Papa Bear in these books is, to put it simply, a buffoon. He thinks he knows what he's doing, and tries to impart his "wisdom" to the younger generation, but only demonstrates what an incompetent doofus he is.

Repeatedly. In every book.

Now this has been starting to rub me the wrong way. I'm not so sure this is such an innocent thing--particularly in American culture the way it is today, in 2008.

To be fair, I can see how the humor would have worked back when these books were first written, in the mid-to-late '60's. After all, this was only a decade or so removed from the "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver" and "Andy Griffith" phenomena. Fathers had been portrayed as omni-competent know-it-alls: wise, benevolent, authoritative, boring as heck. It was clearly taken way too far, ultimately turning the manly-man-type father into an easy object for gentle mockery. Let's face it, in a world of Ward Cleavers, a father-type figure who thinks he knows it all--but who's really only bluffing--is pretty funny, an easy target for subversive humor.

The trouble is, this isn't the late sixties anymore. It has become perfectly acceptable in much of society--in advertising, entertainment, even academia--to hold men as a group (and fathers specifically) in what I refer to as casual contempt. (I may write a post in the near future defining what I mean by this term in a little more detail, but that's a bit too much for one night.) That slightly buffoonish manly-man daddy caricature has been around for so long, that it's now being mistaken for the real thing--especially in this age when so many marriages fall apart, and so many kids grow up not knowing what a real daddy looks like. The daddy-as-buffoon motif isn't funny anymore, because too many people believe it's true.

I'm not the first person to come to this conclusion. Take a look at a couple of posts from the website of Dr. Helen Smith, a psychologist with an interest in Men's Issues. Take a look especially at some of the comments she gets to her posts, both from men and from women. Here are some of her more recent posts.
  • This one, along with the linked article here, talk about how men can and should deal with women in their lives who are habitual male-bashers.
  • This one started with a comment by Michelle Obama, and noted how so few people caught that what she said actually amounted to a slur against an entire gender, that would have never been forgiven had it been a man talking about women.
  • This one noted just how terrible men come off in advertising, and muses on the fact of people trying to sell stuff to an audience who they're actively insulting.
Read through some of her comment threads. Listen, particularly, to the sheer pain expressed by about half of her male commenters.


I've been thinking a lot lately about how men are viewed by our society, about how men are viewed in the Bible, about how these two views differ, and about how I want my soon-to-be-all-grown-up daughters to see men. They are certainly going to be bombarded with negative images about us guys as they are growing up (although perhaps a little less in our case, as we don't have a TV). But I absolutely do not want to let my children develop anything like a casual contempt of anyone, for any reason.

And this means we have to take some time to evaluate what it is we let our kids read. Does this mean we have to eliminate Berenstain Bears? Perhaps; I haven't talked through all the ramifications with my lovely wife yet. And given that we don't have a TV importing all these negative images into our household every day, perhaps one book or so every couple of weeks won't hurt that badly. But it's something that we certainly should keep to a minimum, whatever we do.

And yes, this is yet one more way in which we'll be swimming upstream culturally. We'll just toss it on the pile with all the others and keep going....


Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Post exactly on target. Try to find a commercial or sitcom where the father is not consistently painted as a buffoon. The most recent sitcom I remember where the father was not a fool was Cosby.

I found an interesting article at Men Only, Not Boys that I think you might be interested in reading.

I passed it along to several husbands I know who were originally buffoons themselves and went to the opposite extreme. Let me know what you think of it.

(Note -- that does not mean I agree with everything at this ministry. Some ministries are like watermelons .. good over all, but ya gotta spit out the seeds.)

Timothy Power said...

Sadly, with my wife being so close to her farmers' roots, she'd whup me in a watermelon-spittin' contest.

I feel, like, so unmanly....

I'll take a look at that article when I have a chance. Thanks!

Heather said...

I actually use those books and tv programs ect - to talk to my kids (7 and 5) about how Mommy and Daddy don't act that way - how it's disrespectful to Daddy, who works so hard so I can stay home and teach them. That poeple who love each other DON'T treat each other like that - they will go so far now as to point it out to me when they see it.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

I have been thinking for a bit, and I think there is also a bit of biology to what is going on here.

Let's look at the animal kingdom. The female of any species tends to have several conflicting desires.

First, a female wants a "high value male" to increase the genetic quality of her offspring. This generally means males who are strong and good hunter/gatherers and who are also desired by other females.

On the other hand, the female also wants a male who will voluntarily stay in the cave to help with the rearing of the young.

I think that has gotten morphed into many women who want men who are:

a. strong and independant,

b. yet do what they are told.

Just my $0.02.

Timothy Power said...

Funny, that's just what I want in a woman. ;-)

Kerry said...

Sadly, a very true post. I also used to LOVE Berenstain Bear books as a kid, but have noticed this same "theme". We do still have one Berenstain book, and my kids do like it. I'm hoping it isn't as influential since it is only one book. I think they've realized that Father Bear is a buffoon...but just him, not our daddy.

Sebastian said...

The irony is that this isn't just a model that is damaging to young boys. Sure boys may read these and think that being a father requires little more than siring cubs. (Although, as much as I don't care for these books, at least the father is present, actively involved and tries to do well by his kids. More than can be said for many more recent books for young readers.)
But I wonder at the impact on young girls when they are fed on a diet of readings that portray men as bumblers who can't be counted on. If that is your view of men, then why not pick an exciting, good looking bumbler. It's not as if you're planning on him for support (financial or emotional). Makes me wonder how much of the family breakdown we're reaping was seeded in stories like this.

Calming Tea said...

I found your blog via the homeschooling carnival, and my husband and I could not agree more. We do not allow Bearenstein Bears in our home, and had to return our Sonlight Bearenstein Nature Book. My husband is the priest of our home, the provider and protector of our family, and the model of Christ to our children, not a babbling buffoon.