[Image description: Interior illustration from Hush a Bye, Baby, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli & Shahrzad Maydani, featuring a orange-haired white father gently carrying his sleeping dark-haired white infant up the stairs, past a wall of painted fish.]
In this post: Children’s books showing celebrating responsive and nurturing fathers
How the incapable dad myth harms our entire family
My sons bring home stories of classmates who tell them boys can’t play with dolls. They tell me only women can be teachers. They listen to folks at the grocery store are talk about their dad like it’s a weird, super-human act for a man to hold his own baby. They are absorbing all of this, and they are learning what kinds of fathers they will be tomorrow – right now.
I get a lot of nasty looks and snide comments about controlling my little earthquakes in public. One of my sons is ‘spirited,’ the other is dramatic – they are both loud and rambunctious, but we can’t stay in the house 24/7 and I can’t pull them aside for a stern but gentle lecture in the middle of paying for groceries.
In the same situation, with the same spirited/dramatic bouncing and screeching, my partner gets sympathetic smiles and applauded for ‘giving mom a break.’
I’m a woman, and my partner is a man – we’re both decent parents and yet the gap between what people expect of us as parents is staggering. My partner finds these compliments insulting. I find them dangerous.
What kind of expectations do these coded compliments send our sons?
Evil looks and patronizing compliments aren’t the most dangerous thing strangers could throw our way. Transracial and multiracial families are often accused of kidnapping their own children, and strangers call the cops on parents of color and parents of disabled kids during routine meltdowns and temper tantrums all the time.
So I’m not as vocal as I should be about it, because we have it easy. But it’s a nasty message for my sons to absorb. How will this affect what they expect of themselves when they become fathers?
It’s our responsibility to fight toxic fatherhood
White knights and tough-guy super heroes in books and pop culture aren’t helping. Our boys look up to these stoic heroes as pinnacles of masculinity, and writers give them nothing but fists and guns to handle conflict.
And yet – we’re asking for their fathers to show vulnerability and nurturing behavior they never grew up with. We want our men to snuggle, empathize, and pick up their share of domestic work, while remaining strong, stoic, and ready to save the day.
Gender equality for parents won’t come from just demanding fathers do more – the way we demand it of mothers. No human can handle that. We’re not going to get true family equality until we make reasonable expectations of all parents – with room for mistakes and forgiveness.
My partner gets the kids ready every morning, cooks us all dinner in the evening, and sings the boys ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ every night at bedtime. We haven’t always shared equal parenting responsibilities, and we waver in workload, but we strive to set a good example for what responsible fatherhood looks like.
But I don’t give him much space for vulnerability. I rely on him too much along standard gender roles – to support our family as our primary breadwinner, to be my rock when I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed, and to pick up the slack when I absolutely can’t handle any more. He doesn’t have space to vent, to get sick, or to say “I can’t.”
As a partner, that’s not fair for me to expect him to always be the white knight. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to give my kids not only examples of cuddly, capable fathers, but also fathers who sometimes make mistakes and show weakness without feeding into stereotypes of incompetent dads.
My boys need to see what healthy fatherhood looks like.
Start reflecting healthy fatherhood immediately
Incendiaries – you are raising the kind and brilliant leaders of tomorrow.
We are responsible for changing expectations for fathers. We can teach our sons that it is natural and normal for fathers to be primary (or only) caregivers, and set healthy expectations for what that looks like. We can teach our daughters that they have a right to demand competent partners in hetero relationships who take responsibility for raising their own children.
And we need to balance a fine line between expecting them to take on different responsibilities than their fathers and grandfathers. When we give them that responsibility, we need to give them space to be vulnerable. Otherwise, they’ll end up just as stressed out and miserable as the mothers who are expected to have (and do) it all today.
I can’t control my partner and tell him what healthy masculinity should look like. But I can integrate more books into our lexicon that model capable, emotionally responsive fathers for my sons. We read books that reflect our family dynamic of co-parenting- because the media we’ve come across is not cutting it.
We read stories where fathers are equal to mothers in parenting every week – not just on Father’s Day.
Note to single-fathers-by-choice: Books that do not mention mothers or second parents are marked with an asterisk [*]
Myth: Dads don’t snuggle
This myth is of course, bullshit. Our boys deserve to see that snuggling is awesome and normal.
For more stories encouraging boys to be emotionally responsive, check out 6 Mistakes We Make Raising Sons – Teaching Boys To Fight Toxic Masculinity & Prevent Sexual Assault
Myth: Dads are incompetent at routine childcare
Also bullshit. Show our kids (of every gender) that men are expected to do the (kinda frustrating) daily work of parenting – from changing diapers to wrestling toddlers into diapers to walking home from school to dropping kids off at swim lessons.
For more stories featuring families of all shapes and sizes, check out: Love Is Love Is Love Is Love: Diverse Family Constellations In Kids Books
Myth: Dads are irresponsible and indulgent
The following stories riff off the idea that dad can’t handle nuanced social-emotional situations. While typical stories show dads offering immature and naive advice, these books turn that trope on its head.
Myth: Only Mothers Are Responsible For Raising Feminists
These stories are validating stories. If all goes well – they’ll be outdated in a few years, but for now, stating explicitly that a dad can be a feminist, a man can cook dinner too, and a father promoting equal education for his daughter is revolutionary is necessary.
Still – we need to play around with the text in these books depending on what our kids already understand as normal. For kids whose fathers already cook dinner, adding the ‘too’ suggests we’re the oddballs. So we leave that kind of implication unsaid.
Myth: Single-fatherhood is a last-resort
Findus and Pettson aren’t technical a father-son team but the way they talk (and the affection and love they have for each other) is the kind of healthy, patient relationship I want my sons to see. Findus (the cat) is basically a demanding 5-year-old, and the relationship between the two of them make this our favorite series to read together. That’s saying a lot, for a family who reads thousands of books each year.
In all of these books, we see parents who chose this life together with their children. Whether they’re single parents by adoption or circumstances, these fathers re-commit to their choice to parent with intention and wouldn’t change a thing about their families.
Myth: Single-father families are tragic
These silly and fun books feature happy families with single-fathers. Dads and their kids respect each other’s choices, cooperate as a team, and genuinely enjoy each other.
Myth: Dads aren’t good for much beyond bread-winning & goofing around
To counter the stereotype of cold executive dads and naive buffoonery, the following dads parent with wise intention, listen, and empathize with their children.
Subtle Stereotypes & Invisible Patriarchy – Problematic Books To Avoid
Stories of incompetent, lazy dads are obviously out, but there are more subtle stereotypes that imply dads can only fulfill half of what kids need. The logical fallacy is that kids need both a mom and a dad, so same-sex and single parents (or grandparents) are an inadequate second choice. (This is nonsense.)
Problematic trope: Indulgent Dads need hard-nosed moms
This softer message is usually disguised as a joke – the indulgent dad, like the one in Because Your Daddy Loves You seems innocuous – until you read the mom-version written by the same author. Dad is permissive with his delicate, incompetent daughter, while mom wisely guides her son to endure and follow through independently.
Read alone, Because Your Mommy Loves You is a beautiful story of intelligent parenting and choosing the harder path to let our kids (or at least, sons) learn to become independent and confident. But side-by-side with the Dad version, the author speaks volumes about what we can expect from dad (the more fun, indulgent, and easier path that ultimately kneecaps girls and encourages them to rely on daddy to solve her problems). There was zero reason to flip the script based on gender roles. Unless, of course, we believe that’s the proper parenting role for fathers (it’s not.)
Problematic trope: Only dads can truly connect with sons
In stories like Dad And The Dinosaur, only dad can truly understand how important his son’s toy dinosaur is to him – and only dad is willing to spend all night searching for it. Mom, of course, just doesn’t get it. Because something about her foreign and mysterious femininity doesn’t allow her to understand the importance of dinosaurs or something.
This is the argument homophobic bigots use to fight the parental and adoption rights of same-sex and single parents, and it’s garbage.
Problematic Trope: Fathers don’t care as much about their children as mothers
In The Crows of Pearblossom, a mother crow is slowly driven insane by a snake that eats her babies, every single day. She’s rightfully upset, but her husband dismisses her as hysterical. The joke is partly on him – he’s clearly a sexist ass hat, but really, that joke is at everyone’s expense. Because he’s the children’s father, he can remain coldly logical, removed, and undisturbed about the murder of his children.
This is the bias we promote when we default to giving mothers custody of children, assuming that once a father’s child is out of sight, they’re out of his heart. This is what leads us to believe that children will be safer from neglect and abuse with mothers than with fathers. This is, of course, entirely rubbish.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Give Your Dad A Hug
Did you learn something in this post that helps you be a better parent?
Join the Benevolent Incendiary Society for free, and I’ll send you twice-monthly emails to help you raise kind and brilliant little humans.