The Prodigal Father

I related to American depictions of the father/child relationship a lot more as a child than I do as a dad.

Americans, it seems, are obsessed with this relationship. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Ariel and King Triton. Gru and his girls. The dad in The LEGO Movie. And it’s all the same story.

The father is aloof and cold. Or actively cruel and heartless. Or overbearing. Or a fool. Or simply overprotective. Or not there at all. Vader is actively evil. Gru is cold. Triton is overbearing and overprotective. Green Lantern is absent. Even the parents in Frozen lock their daughter up “for her own good”.

This can’t be how American dads actually behave; I know too many good ones. Surely they can’t all be exceptions; if they are, it makes America seem downright scary. Where are the fathers who are actively involved in their kids’ lives? Who encourage their kids to explore and be creative? Who are actually competent? Who, get this, act like real Dads?

British media don’t obsess about the father/child relationship in the same way. You might see a dad who’s a fool, but the focus is usually on the dysfunction between him and his wife, not between him and his children. Being a sap with his kids is incidental.

No, it’s just American media that obsess about the relationship.

The PBS Kids show Sid the Science Kid seems to be a lone exception to this. Sid’s Dad is competent on his own ground (he’s a construction worker, not an intellectual), present in the family, loves his wife and kids, is actively involved in their lives, is not afraid to defer to his wife’s expertise in areas of her competency, and encourages his children to explore. But Sid’s dad seems an almost solitary light in the paternal darkness of US film and TV. Gru in Despicable Me 2 is pretty good, but he acts more like a playmate than a father, and we had to see him become Good Dad in the first movie.

And a whole lot of everything else is dysfunction.

More, it’s all the dad’s fault. Always. Vader must be brought to the light side. Gru’s heart must be changed. Triton must let his daughter swim and be free. The dad in the LEGO Movie must awaken to his son’s creativity and stop being so controlling. The child may be rebellious, a runaway, a disgrace, but it was their father who drove them to it. They were just trying to express Who They Really Are. As a dad, it’s… uncomfortable.

We can see that it’s the dad’s fault, because itVs the dad that has to repent. The child may have to make some sort of surface “apology” for running away or “letting you down” or whatever, but it’s the father who has to truly repent. Show me a scenario in American media where it’s the child who has to grow up, repent and change. No; this is for the Dad to do.

As a child with a not-entirely-working relationship with my own dad, this was great news! I didn’t need to do anything; it was his fault!

As a man, I’ve come to realise that my dad was right a lot more than I cared to admit back then. Characterising it as All His Fault isn’t fair. I contributed to the mess.

I’ve become a dad now. I know a lot of dads. They aren’t like this media picture. I don’t think I’m like this.

If this isn’t a real reflection of the real state of American families, and I don’t believe it is, what is going on here?

Personally I blame the American War of Independence.

Yeah, it’s easy for me to come in as a Brit and blame everything on the piece of American history that I still can’t quite get my heart around. But put the Thirteen Colonies in the role of the child and Britain in the role of the father and the two are one and the same. Britain may be a motherland, when we think of her at all that way, but here, we are the Father. The Authority, with a capital “A”.

In this context, the child has to be right because the child is America. The father has to be demonstrably cruel and overbearing, because that justifies the child’s actions. The child isn’t being an uncontrollable rebellious brat in dire need of loving discipline in order to become who they can be, they’re just expressing Who They Really Are Right Now. They need to be Understood and Accepted, and everything will magically become OK.

I don’t know if this is really what’s going on, but it explains a lot. This is the story in most American writers’ hearts because America itself feels like their “dad” Britain Just Doesn’t Get It.

But it leaves me with questions. If this is really the case, what do you want from us, America? The Revolutionary War wasn’t entirely the fairy tale you envisage. The “evil British tyrants” weren’t doing things just to be cruel, any more than the American colonists were rebelling because they were ungrateful scoundrels who thought that everything revolved around them.

America is a grown-up nation however that happened. We don’t (seriously) hold the Revolutionary War against you. I have a hard time around the Fourth not because I’m carrying a grudge but because I have a secret fear that you still might be: Paul Revere still rides through a dozen newspaper comins. Hollywood still treats an English accent as evidence of villainy. Even your national anthem subtly paints us as the bad guy shooting rockets at the heroic American defenders of liberty.

The job of a father is to raise their child to become an independent adult. America is an independent adult nation. Maybe this year I can celebrate that fact without unleashing my “but you still think we’re villains!” fear.

Maybe this year I can find a way to love the USA even on the Fourth of July that doesn’t make me feel like I’m expected to believe that I am a tyrant and the son of tyrants.

Maybe I can stand blinking in the dawn’s surly light and truly celebrate the independence of a free nation under God.

I’ll keep trying.


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