Dumb Dads

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

There's a new Pixar movie coming this summer called Inside Out. It's all about the emotions that live inside our minds, and in the trailer for the movie, a mom, dad and daughter sit at the dinner table. The daughter, Riley, is upset about something, and the mom is concerned.

The dad, though, isn't paying attention. Inside his mind, he's replaying a hockey game, and when his wife calls him to attention, he wonders whether it's garbage night or if he left the toilet seat up. He completely misreads his daughter's fragile emotional state while the frustrated mom fantasizes about being with a Brazilian helicopter pilot instead of her dopey husband.

It's supposed to be cute and funny, but it's profoundly disappointing (especially given Pixar's prior history of complex characters). Movies, commercials, sitcoms - they routinely portray dads as lazy, stupid, selfish, inattentive dolts who don't know the first thing about raising kids.

As the primary caregiver for my kids, I find portrayals like these insulting. But they also make for uninspired, confusing art. Sure, deadbeat dads exist. But my kids don't know any: All of the dads they know are caring, active participants in the lives of their families. (That goes for grandfathers, too.)

So to see the inconsiderate, loudmouth father in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever show more interest in his dinner and his newspaper than his family's troubles isn't just a lazy, unoriginal stereotype. It's confusing for kids. For comedy to work, it has to ring true, and that depiction doesn't ring true for my kids or their friends.

If the stereotype is repeated ad nauseam, though, they probably will start to pick up on the assumptions behind this lowest-common-denominator humor. And that's dangerous, because then that false idea of fatherhood has wormed its way into their brains.

I've mentioned this before, but I'll never forget a friend of my wife reacting to the news that I'd be my kids' primary caregiver. She gave us a bug-eyed look and told us the story of her husband feeding croutons to their kids for breakfast because he said it was the same as toast.

Pushing aside the fact that croutons really are quite similar to toast (down with breakfast stereotypes!), this "Mr. Mom" theory of incapable fathers also assumes that when Mom's away, Dad should be filling her shoes. While I'm convinced dads can change diapers as well as moms, I also parent my children in a unique way that is inseparable from my identity as a man and father, and that is no less valid than the way in which my wife parents them. Not every kid has the luxury of two parents, but in households with both, children benefit from the different approaches and strengths offered by each.

Of course I'm a bumbling idiot at times. I'm a serial forgetter of essential kid items, be it a pacifier or a lunchbox. But guess what? Despite what Pixar would have you believe, moms can be bumbling idiots, too. We're all uniquely broken, simultaneously loving our kids and screwing them up in ways we won't realize until we're holding our AARP cards.

-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer who would heartily endorse eating croutons at any meal.