The diaper giant Huggies has made a mess this week by rolling out an advertising campaign that portrays fathers as hapless and helpless in the face of a child’s needs.

Is this so strange? (Gerald Martineau /The Washington Post)

At a time when dads are routinely on diaper duty and national surveys show they are taking on more childcare and child-rearing stress, the antiquated Huggies stereotype is inspiring protests.

“How can you insult hundreds of thousands of dads, who serve as the primary caregiver, and in some cases, THE ONLY caregiver, to their children?” asks an irate John Taylor, a Virginia dad who writes the blog The DaddyYo Dude, in an open letter to Huggies he posted Wednesday.

The Huggies Facebook page is filled with complaints from fathers. One of my favorite: “What is this, 1948?”

Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania father has launched an online petition asking Huggies to yank the ads. “Changing diapers, cleaning, feeding, bathing ... no aspect of parenting other than actually giving birth and breastfeeding is off-limits to involved 21st Century dads. The days of dad being unwilling or unable to take an active role in even the messiest aspects of parenting young children are past,” writes Chris Routly.

As of this writing, Routly’s petition was closing in on a thousand signatures.

Huggies has responded on its Facebook page that no insult was intended; the campaign’s purpose is to “celebrate” fathers.

The controversy comes at a particularly sensitive time for this cultural issue.

Last month, New York Times Motherlode blogger KJ Dell’Antonia set off a firestorm when she pointed out that a 2010 Census report on childcare designates mothers as the “designated parent” and a father as a “childcare arrangement.”

It was also the Census Bureau that issued a 2011 release of data compiled for Father’s Day that grouped statistics about fathers’ increasing parenting role under the title “Mr. Mom.”

Routly points out in his petition letter that one of the dangers in perpetuating these stereotypes is that they can undermine a father’s self-confidence. That, in turn, might lead a father to disengage, which doesn’t benefit anyone.

In just one example of why it’s best for dads to be as involved as a mother, a new study published in the latest issue of Family Science shows that toddlers’ interaction with fathers can reap significant academic rewards for children later in life.

That study, by the way, is one of the few that has examined the long-term results of interactions between children and both their mothers and fathers.

Are you an involved father? Is your partner? How do you feel about these stereotypes? No big deal or damaging?

Related Content:

Can dads have it all?

Pew study finds fathers increasingly either all in or out

Testosterone nose dives in fathers and hands-on dads, study says

What should we call dads who stay home with the kids?