The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mama Bear knows best: The enduring problem with children’s picture books

(iStock) (n/a/CSA-Archive)

When I finally found the disintegrating cardboard box labeled “Sara’s books” beneath plastic bins of “winter clothes” and “serving platters” and “mismatched linens” in the dust of my parents’ attic, I was psyched.

Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, the Little Critter books and, of course, the Berenstain Bears greeted me like old friends. I picked up one of my favorites, “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV.” As a kid I had gravitated toward books that grappled with weighty, contentious issues: Messy rooms, sibling squabbles, holiday greed.

Back at my own house, I plied my son, and later my daughter, with these beloved tales as soon as they aged out of board books and became interested in actual narrative arcs. At age 4, my son became entranced with a Berenstain Bears classic: “No Girls Allowed.”

When my son first trooped over to me with this book in hand, I cringed. But I read it to him anyway, ever on the lookout for harmful, sexist messaging I could skip. The book ends with Sister Bear starting a No Boys Allowed club in retaliation against Brother’s No Girls Allowed club, only to be convinced by Mama that exclusion isn’t fun for anyone. The denouement teaches us that girls and boys are equal, and all is well.

Surprisingly, one of the more problematic parts of the book is actually earlier in the story, when Mama watches Sister outperform Brother at baseball, running and tree climbing. She asks Papa, “How would you have liked it when you were a cub if some little girl could outrun, outclimb, and outhit you?” Papa replies immediately: “I wouldn’t have liked it.” What could have been a lesson for Brother in humility becomes a lesson for Sister to essentially hide her accomplishments so they won’t make boys feel inferior.

After literally hidingNo Girls Allowed” under my mattress, I considered the rest of the Berenstain Bears oeuvre. There are countless pictures of Mama wielding a broom or rake while Papa swings in a hammock chewing on straw, napping or reading the paper. There’s “The Messy Room,” in which Mama clutches her aching back and loses her cool entirely in the midst of the cubs’ clutter. Papa only deigns to make an appearance when Mama’s screams of frustration interrupt his woodworking in a nearby workshop.

Why I'm struggling to explain my beauty routine to my 4-year-old daughter

There’s my old favorite, “Too Much TV,” in which Papa hypocritically admonishes the cubs to break their TV addiction despite his own reliance on “sports shows.” It’s up to Mama to teach both her children and her husband to enjoy life without solely relying on instant gratification. Her sleep is interrupted one night because Papa sneaks downstairs during a TV ban to watch a late-night movie. Papa grovels in the dark like a naughty teenager while Mama glowers from the top step.

And there’s the lovely book about Thanksgiving, “Prize Pumpkin,” in which Mama preaches about the joy of gratitude and giving thanks, only to be rendered voiceless by Papa’s insidious obsession with winning the big pumpkin prize. Papa scowls into his dinner plate about Farmer Ben’s history of winning the contest, while Mama attempts to reason with him as she bends over to serve another scoop of mashed potatoes. Papa is not pictured helping her with the dishes.

After flipping through only a few of these old favorites (I won’t mention the nonsense that abounds in the pages of “Mama’s New Job”), it’s clear to all readers that Mama knows best and Daddy is a bumbling fool who forces Mama to parent him in addition to her children. To the cubs (and probably to my children), Papa Bear is decidedly the fun one. He lets the kids eat too much candy, stay up way past their bedtimes, and follow all of their most base impulses. He models a way of life that any of us might envy, a life in which all of his emotional, dietary, household and even psychological needs are met with no effort on his part, but by his eternally patient, kind, wise wife. In this case, the word “partner” can hardly be appropriate.

My son once told me I wasn’t fun.

“What do you mean?” I asked, a touch offended.

“I mean, not like daddy is fun,” he said, as if it made the most sense in the world.

“Uh huh,” I said, too immersed in urging my daughter to finish her broccoli to have the energy to go further.

My husband is fun. He buys the kids juice to accompany their nutritionally bereft bagel lunches, he takes them to migraine-inducing indoor play spaces instead of libraries, he rolls his eyes when I insist the kids split one kiddie-sized ice cream. He pretends to be a mammoth, giving the kids uproarious rides of glee — which isn’t problematic in and of itself except for the fact that this often happens at bedtime, which of course, turns bedtime into a mess of overstimulation. I fold laundry downstairs, gritting my teeth in frustration when I hear the first mention of mammoth rides, and these little jaunts often end with this Mama bear stomping upstairs and angrily restoring order. How very un-fun of me.

Mama Bear and I are similar (minus, among other qualities, the eternal patience), but this is not to say that my husband is like Papa Bear. Far from it. He cooks dinner more often than not, and is more vigilant about dirty clothes going into hampers than I’ll ever be.

Nearly every book I read in my early childhood featured anthropomorphized animal mamas wearing cozy aprons and patient smiles alongside sturdy animal papas marching down sandy roads toward jobs and lives outside of the rabbit warren, bird nest, or in the Berenstain Bears’ case, treehouse. Mama Bunny, Mama Robin and Mama Bear seem destined to stand on the doorstep waving handkerchiefs in their husbands’ dust. Even if my children see my husband and I modeling (mostly) egalitarian gender roles at home, I wonder how many harmful, gendered messages are seeping into their tender little psyches by way of seemingly innocuous children’s books.

While it’s relatively (and thankfully) easy to find books that defy restrictive gender roles for the protagonist children (think: “My Princess Boy,” or Rosie Revere Engineer”), it’s trickier to find books that show parents themselves defying these norms. I originally bought Jabari Jumps to help my son overcome his fear of swimming, but now I appreciate the fact that Jabari’s dad brings Jabari and his sister swimming on his own (Jabari’s mom is hopefully getting a massage off-page), and also empathizes with Jabari about fear and anxiety, something Mama Bears are usually in charge of.

But the fact that only one book pops into mind is troubling. Even Google offers little help. Searching for “kids books that show parents defying gender roles” provides few results aside from a book called “My Best Day with Daddy: The Adventures of Maya and her Modern Day Family.” The fact that we must call a stay-at-home father “modern” is sigh-inducing. And the fact that such a book must be tacitly marked as “special” rather than merely illustrating one of many family structures indicates that we have much, much further to go. The 2018 version of Mama Bear who lives in my imagination would examine the sad state of current affairs, throw her broom at Papa Bear, and write her own story.

Sara Petersen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Redivider, Ploughshares, Catapult, Hippocampus, The Lily, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. She lives on the Seacoast in New Hampshire, where she’s working on a collection of personal essays about the difficulties of living up to both feminine and feminist ideals only to end up somewhere in the messy middle. Find her @slouisepetersen on Twitter, and at

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. Join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career.

More reading:

Why men need to embrace their nurturing side, including the title ‘Mr. Mom’

My wife and I swapped traditional parenting roles. It’s been harder than I expected.

The challenge of modeling shared household duties when mom works at home