A recurring theme I have noticed in children’s literature is this: Moms and dads are usually absent. And if the parents are mentioned, they are often negligent kill-joys who hinder and sometimes even harm their children.
As a parent, I can’t help but wonder what message this sends to our children.
I first noticed the absence of parents thirty-odd years ago reading the Famous Five stories. Each story would typically begin with Mom and Dad going overseas and dumping their kids at Aunt Fanny’s for whole summers at a time. The message was, “Mom and Dad are going on an adventure and you can’t come.” But that was okay because the kids would have adventures of their own. Who needs parents? They only get in the way.
Where are the parents?
The fairytales we read are populated by bad parents. Take Snow White for example. In this classic tale we have a king who marries a psycho-lady putting his little girl in mortal danger. And what does the king do to protect his child? Not a blessed thing. What’s wrong with that picture?! And don’t get me started on Hansel and Gretel!
As a child, these examples of parental neglect or abuse troubled me slightly. But as a father, they trouble me deeply. I hate reading stories where the parents are absent or untrustworthy. I have three daughters and I don’t want them buying into any narrative that says daddy can’t be trusted. I don’t want them pining for some rich kid on a horse to come and rescue them.
The absence of good parents and safe homes is a theme that stretches from Neverland to Narnia. The Darling children fly away from home, while the Pevensie children are sent from home. Sure, this is often the set-up for an adventure, but why do so many authors feel it’s necessary to get rid of Mom and Dad before we can have a good story?
If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself, what do the following characters all have in common? Cinderella, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, Heidi, Matilda, Oliver Twist, Mowgli, Harry Potter, Spiderman, Batman, Wolverine, Magneto, Tarzan and Frodo Baggins. Answer: They are all orphans. None of them know their fathers.
The absent father
The stories we tell shape our children. So what sort of people are we raising when our stories feature absent or faithless fathers? It’s as though our stories were written by the Prodigal Son, which is fine, I guess, but I am not a prodigal and I’m not raising prodigals. Neither are you.
In contrast, the stories Jesus told often featured good fathers. In his most famous story, a father is the hero who falls on his wayward son, not with blows, but hugs and kisses (Luke 15:20). I like that story because it speaks to the universal need for a good father who loves us as we are and not as we should be.
(Why aren’t there more stories like that one? Perhaps there are and I just haven’t read them. Let me know below.)
The Big House
About seven years ago I got fed up reading fatherless fairytales to my kids, so I began inventing my own tales. I made up stories where the fathers were legendary and totally trustworthy. The parents in my stories weren’t background scenery; they were heroes who took their children on great adventures.
Earlier this year I read one of my stories to my kids over several nights of a family vacation. Forgive the immodesty, but they loved it. The critics were unanimous. One of them gave it five stars and another rated it “a million out of ten.” (My kids are awesome! My eldest told her class that I was her favorite author. Awww.)
That story was called The Big House and it has just been published. It goes on sale next month (and yes, it will be available in paperback as well as Kindle, and PDF). What’s it about? I’ll tell you more in a week or two, but in essence, it’s about a couple of kids who discover that their father is a billion times more awesome than they think he is.
Which, when you think about it, is just about the greatest discovery anyone can make.