Bearly there

Are the Berenstain Bears just lowbrow morality tales, or have they crudely tapped into what contemporary kids think of the average dad?

Published February 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If I were a dad, I'd ban the Berenstain Bears from my house.

But I was a new mom, and I let them in. I started getting them for my now 13-year-old daughter when she was 3. She read and collected Berenstain Bears books all the way up to fourth grade, and then her little sister picked up the mantle. That little sister is now in fourth grade, and still says she likes the Berenstain Bears "because they are funny."

These ubiquitous little books are used as morality lessons not only in homes but also in schools, hospitals and just about anywhere else modern Aesop's fables are called for. Each book in the collection, which numbers over 50, features Mama, Papa, Brother and Sister Berenstain grappling with issues that concern kids everywhere: bullies, bad dreams, messy rooms, stress, "the gimmes," grades. The bears themselves are uninspired, garish cartoons; the narratives are wordy, with hokey rhyme schemes, predictable dialogue and pat, oversimplified solutions. But what is really irksome about the Berenstain Bears is that, in at least half of the books, Papa has to learn the lesson at hand as badly as the kids do. In fact, he's sometimes the most flagrant offender. Savvy parents I know hate the Berenstain Bears, but buy the books anyway -- kids clamor for them. Any reading is good, right?

Worldwide, all those dog-eared collections add up to 220 million books in print, and the series continues to register on Publishers Weekly's list of the bestselling books of all time. At only $3.25 for a paperback, they're cheap enough to add to the checkout pile without much thought when a kid grabs one off the "collect them all!" rack. They've been made into Living Books CD-ROMs and, of course, the bears have a Web site, which was named the best family site by the Web Marketing Association and was nominated, most appropriately, for a WWW "eye candy" award in 1998. (On the site, Papa retains a shred of self-respect: He's off fishing for some salmon so that Mama can cook their favorite dish. But a descriptive caption also reads that "he's often wrong but never in doubt.") Libraries put the frumpily dressed beasts on their summer reading lists because they know kids will read them. Newspaper articles tout them in living sections for those times when a family is moving, going to the dentist or someone is too close to drugs. Pediatric Nursing Journal even recommends "the new baby" book for dealing with sibling issues, and sure enough, when I was expecting my second, the midwife read it to my older daughter in the preparation class. Even the children's librarian at the Library of Congress gives the Berenstain Bears rave reviews.

The comic relief that my daughter and other kids find is provided by worst-kid-of-them-all Papa Bear. Many a master of kiddie lit -- Roald Dahl comes to mind -- has used parents as villains or as objects of humorous ridicule, but there's something about Papa Bear immersed in this whole lowbrow package that is especially offensive. In every book, a problem is laid out -- the cubs watch too much TV or eat too many sweets, to name the premises behind two continuous bestsellers. In these particular stories, Mama formulates a plan to steer the kids toward better behavior, and Papa turns out to be the biggest culprit. (He's caught sneaking into the candy stash even after a healthy eating routine is instituted, or he's the only one who goes back to watching the TV all day after the rest of the family has learned to appreciate fresh air and knitting following a week-long ban by Mama.) Then, in every book, the conflict is all tied up neatly somehow. In some of the books, Papa merely stays on the outskirts of the "domestic" problem until Mama is desperate for some back-up or just resorts to a time-tested meltdown. Once in a rare while it's actually Papa who knows best, but the books that seem to always come out at bedtime are the ones in which Papa doesn't have a clue.

- - - - - - - - - -

Just when you think it isn't possible for the Berenstain Bears to be more infuriatingly formulaic, nearly every story ends with a tidy moral or platitude that kids can hang on to -- and hang on they do. In "Prize Pumpkin," Papa learns that competing to grow the biggest pumpkin isn't the point of Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving isn't about pumpkins and prizes," Mama tells Papa and the cubs, and they literally walk off into the sunset.

Kids get hooked on the books early, collecting them like baseball cards or Beanie Babies. In fact, the Berenstain Bears were early forerunners, along with Disney's offspring, of the corporate-kiddie character axis that helps ensure that kids will pester their parents for the next book, as well as the relevant paraphernalia or a visit to one of the country's several Bear Country theme parks. The authors, Stan and Jan Berenstain, say their latest foray, Bear chapter books, were written after their maturing but devoted audience begged them to write versions for older children.

Besides the Disney factor, experts say children love these books because they provide orderly answers to their most looming problems in a chaotic world. But I'm pretty sure the books' messages about Papa also stay on kids' psyches, like old e-mail on a hard drive. I was showing a book to my 13-year-old and her pal, assuming they would now, with the wisdom of age, pronounce the Bears stupid and sexist. Instead, they suddenly regressed. "Let me show you which ones I have," the friend began, turning automatically to the back cover while my daughter peered eagerly over her shoulder (the cover of each book in the series is pictured on the back, helping to tap into collect-mania). "What did you think of Papa Bear?" I interrupted. "He was funny!" came the answer. I wondered out loud what the long-term consequences would be of having Dagwood Bumstead as a male role model. "Lots of dads are really like him," she explained. "They're either doofuses or mean."

The Bear books' trajectory -- and hold -- on parents and kids provides a microcosmic look at the divide and confusion between those who promote grrrl power and those who think feminism has ruined the masculine psyche. Every few years, a parent who writes for some major paper or news station wrestles in print with the fact that these books are favorites in their house. "Drown the Berenstain Bears," griped the esteemed Charles Krauthammer in 1989. "Papa is a post-feminist Alan Alda fumbling wimp." Susan Keating of the Washington Times called the series "subversive, politically correct literature" with the message that girls are better; she then slammed the Bears with the worst insult she could muster, sneering that they were nothing more than "feminist spokesanimals." In 1996 Garry Trudeau revealed that reading them to the kids made him a little uneasy, since Papa was such a loser. But Jane Pauley said she kind of liked it when Mama had her meltdowns, proving, in my mind, that my own house is not the only one where mamas sometimes disintegrate.

That all-knowing mother bear and endearingly checked-out father are wide open for interpretation in the '90s, depending on one's politics, whether the child in question likes to read and how much work one's husband does around the house. In the early '60s, a domineering mother figure was more likely to be forgiven: A gal's only power was in the house, after all. In today's world, Mama can be inverted into the worst kind of feminist, a politically correct know-it-all or someone who still knows how to impart old-fashioned family values. Mothering magazine listed the series as female-positive, paradoxically coming down on the side of Sen. Orrin Hatch, who told the Washington Post that when his grandkids ask him to read a story, it's usually the Berenstain Bears, books he approves of because of the values they pass on.

In the my-kid's-going-to-Harvard era, the books can also be alluring bait (along the lines of getting a kid to eat breakfast by giving him marshmallow alphabet cereal) to get a non-reader to read. And several mothers told me that despite all the lip service about '90s fathers taking charge at home, the Bear books are still pretty realistic: "My husband really is the first one to turn on the TV after a crackdown," one confided. "Shoot me for saying it," said another, "but the stereotype in those books is still true." Her assessment sounded uncannily like the one that came from the 13-year-olds who assured me that "fathers really are like that."

Husbands in households where the stereotype is still true probably counter that women have a hard time giving up that Mama bear-style power, effectively relegating them to the doofus position. It may all come down to whether you want your bedtime reading to reflect a certain uneasy slice of reality, one that contemporary parents still haven't worked the kinks out of. Modern parents are famous for admitting with frustration that they now see why traditional gender roles became entrenched in the first place, and except for the wealthy, no one has quite figured out how to reshuffle the domestic division of labor. Who knows, maybe kids like the old orderly and predictable division of labor, too; it probably caused less outward bickering, and kids of Berenstain Bears reading age are developmentally fascinated with gender roles anyway.

But what happens when Papa has two left feet at home and children grow up to think that's funny? Arlie Hochschild, author of "The Second Shift," is the sociologist who established that a married working woman toils at one and a half jobs for every one that her husband does when you include home administration. That "second shift" bears down heavily on all of us, male and female alike, preventing us from moving ahead. And one thing that perpetuates it is the Berenstain Bears series. In the one story in which Mama ventures beyond their domestic lair and gets herself a job at a quilting shop, the family starts to fall apart. Do we even need to ask where Papa is when Mama's absence proves too much for the kids? Do you think, even for a minute, that Papa might pick up the slack? Instead -- and despite studies that show that stay-at-home moms are more prone to experience depression than working women -- Mama predictably quits her job.

"Sometimes at dinner, all three of my kids will be addressing me with this or that problem," one friend of mine recently griped. "Their father is sitting right there. What is he, invisible?" I decided to do a little check. "Did your kids happen to love the Berenstain Bears?" I asked sympathetically. They did.

By Kathryn Olney

Kathryn Olney is a writer in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Kathryn Olney

Related Topics ------------------------------------------