Balancing Act

Stereotypes die hard when it comes to honoring fathers

Father's Day

Father's Day (Fuse / Getty Images / June 16, 2011)

I stopped buying my dad a Father's Day card years ago.

We're not estranged. Far from it. It's just that he doesn't golf, I've never seen him lay on a hammock, he's not particularly attached to the remote control, and he's pretty much the opposite of a shiftless, beer-swilling layabout.

So the "Dad Inaction Doll" card ("Recliner Included!") seems, in every way, inadequate. "Where There's Smoke … There's Dad. Happy Father's Day to Our Grillmaster" doesn't really cut it either.

Don't get me wrong: He can grill with the best of them. But that's hardly what springs to mind when I try to quantify all the ways and times he shaped and loved and guided me.

For years I would wade through the jokes and rather-be-fishing signs and settle on a benign sentiment, usually from Snoopy. It wouldn't begin to sum up what my dad means to me, but it wouldn't stomp all over his dignity either.

Eventually I switched to blank cards or thank-you cards, avoiding the Father's Day aisle dreck altogether.

This year I ventured back in, figuring the selection had changed in this era of TV dads who are more Adam Braverman ("Parenthood") than Al Bundy ("Married … With Children"), and real-life dads who are anything but lazy boys: The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 54 percent of fathers who work full time are also spending significant time daily caring for and helping children in their household.

I figured wrong.

In addition to the usual array of mowers and beer and grills and baseballs, I found a Venn diagram of "Beer, Bathroom, Bodily Noises, Napping, Cussing" intersecting to form "Dad." I found "Happy Father's Day to a husband who has it all … but just doesn't know where it is."

I found "Happy Father's Day to a dad who taught me life's most valuable lesson … which way to lean when I fart."

Why are we still doing this? Why did we start?

Who decided Father's Day was a time to lower the bar for the very institution it ostensibly celebrates?

"It's convenient for us to make dads into this strong-all-the-time, silly object and forget the more human sides of him," says Harvard psychologist Anthony Rao, author of "The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys" (William Morrow). "It fits this very narrow view of how we view American males, and they view themselves, as basically a bunch of guys who will do stupid stuff on 'Jackass.'"

But "Jackass," at this point, is best known for its star who died in a car crash, hours after tweeting photos of himself drinking with his buddies. Surely, dads, many of them anyway, are growing weary of this gag.

"I have a lot of dads who tell me they feel deeply wounded by their kids not showing them respect," Rao says. "Their kids don't help out and don't listen to them and think of them like a punching bag who doesn't have any depth or emotion.

"Dads feel like they just orbit around the family, and they feel very alienated."

I can't imagine a "Dad Inaction Doll" card is much of a balm. And I can't imagine it does much for a kid's mental health either.

"The cards just reinforce a negative view of their dad and of men in general," Rao says. "What kind of statement is it making about the kind of man your daughter will meet and fall in love with one day? To a boy, it's a message that you're never going to be taken very seriously, and your feelings don't count."

My dad spent his off-hours coordinating the music for my ballet recitals, back when recital music happened on 8-track tapes. He handmade my Halloween costumes and taught me to drive a stick shift and put me through college and held me up during the darkest hours of my divorce.

I don't expect a card company to put words to that kind of devotion. Those words need to come from me.

But I know I'm not alone when I encounter a sea of fart jokes and lawn mowers and couch potatoes and think: We can do better than this.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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