Dear Mr. Dad: I'm a new dad and have been reading to my baby. But I've started to notice that most of the parents in children's books are moms. There are some books where dad is the main parent, but most of the time we're not there at all. My wife says that the media is just reflecting reality. I disagree. What do you think?
A: First things first: It's fantastic that you're reading to your baby – it's great for both of you. Now, to your question. I'll admit that I'm a little biased in this area, since the portrayal of fathers in children's literature was the topic of an essay (which appeared in Newsweek more than 20 years ago) and helped launch my career writing about fatherhood. In that essay, called "Not All Men Are Sly Foxes," I made the same point that you are, that fathers are largely absent in children's literature and that when they're there, they're more often than not on the periphery or are portrayed as less competent than mom. While there has been some improvement, it hasn't been nearly enough.
One could argue, as your wife does, that the images of men and women in children's literature are simply reflecting the reality that women tend to do more childcare than men. But if children's literature only reflects reality, why aren't fifty percent of the families divorced? Why aren't fifteen to twenty percent of the single parents in these books fathers? Why, for that matter, aren't teen mothers, smokers, alcoholics, and drug abusers adequately represented?
The answer is that literature doesn't always reflect reality. In fact, I think that it does quite the opposite, reflecting a kind of reality that doesn't exist; the world the way we'd like it to be, rather than the way it actually is.
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Books by Richard Scary and many other authors routinely show both male and female police officers, and firefighters. Does that reflect reality? Hardly. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 4 percent of firefighters and 14 percent of police officers are female. But that hasn't prevented us from all but banishing the words "fireman" and "policeman" from the English language. Far more than 4 percent of all the nurturing parents are men and there are a lot more actively involved, nurturing, loving dads out there than there are female police officers. Still, images of nurturing fathers are rare.
There's little question that reading about female firefighters and police officers (as well as construction workers, farmers, military service members, any other profession where women are a small minority) boosts girls' self-esteem and reinforces in their minds – and everyone else's, for that matter – the idea that women have lives beyond the home and that there's nothing girls and women can't do. Little boys, on the other hand, are given a far more restricted list of life options: they can do anything they want, as long as they financially support their families and leave the nurturing to the nearest female.
Thanks to the majority of children's books, our kids – both boys and girls – grow up seeing motherhood as something valuable and noble and seeing mothers as people to love and respect (and, in the case of girls, to become). Those same books show fatherhood as being much less important and fathers as less capable and less worthy of love and respect (and, in the case of boys, not anything to aspire to be).
So the bottom line is that you're right. But you can change things for the better. If you look hard, you'll find more books with positive portrayals of dads. In the meantime, make up some stories of your own.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)