I consider myself a scholarly expert on the Berenstain Bears.
Not because I’ve actually written any scholarly works on the series of books by Stan and Jan Berenstain, but just because I’m an academic and I have read and reread dozens of Berenstain books for more than a decade with first one daughter and now another.
The Bears are a treasure in children’s literature. Memorable characters in often uproariously funny storylines illustrate baseline traditional cultural values without being preachy. What more could a parent want?
One thing I appreciate about the series is that it shows traditional parenting in a realistic way. Mama and Papa Bear are model parents, but they are not perfect. Indeed, some of their parenting practice would certainly run afoul of the contemporary academic literature in child psychology. That scholarship repeatedly assures us that any expression of parental frustration or anger with child behavior is beyond the pale and probably at least borderline abusive with massive destructive effects on the child’s personality all the way into adulthood.
But people who have been parents in real life—as opposed to the childless scholars who often study them—will know that keeping one’s temper in check all the time is impossible. The question is where parents should spend their limited energy and patience when the kids inevitably misbehave.
In the Berenstain Bears household, we see Papa get upset and shout at the cubs to be quiet from time to time or angrily send them to their room, but Mama intervenes to both vindicate Papa’s reaction (the cubs are acting terribly, after all) and to harness it into an effective solution for the problem. Frequently, Gran and Gramps have to solve the problem in a shameless celebration of the wisdom of age. And sometimes it’s Mama who has had all she can take, and then it’s Papa’s turn to step in and give her space to recover and guide the cubs in the right direction.
I feel better about my own imperfect parenting when I see Mama and Papa Bear occasionally lapsing from their best selves under the constant and intense pressure of dealing with young children.
Mama has a near nervous breakdown because of the cubs’ overbooked schedules in Too Much Pressure. I am able to sympathize with her experience on a weekly basis in our own hectic lives. Papa blows a gasket when the cubs throw fits in public to get goodies they want, and I immediately think of how difficult it is for me to stay mild mannered when my little one is erupting over something trivial.
And beyond just the parents, the moral lessons the cubs (and our young readers) learn in the series are rock-solid traditional:
- Manners are an essential part of collective life.
- Materialism is not a recipe for a happy life.
- The natural world is way more interesting and life-affirming than screens and media.
- Arguments and fights with loved ones are unavoidable, but we should be willing to quickly forgive and forget.
- Blaming others constantly and failing to take personal responsibility is a major character flaw.
- There is great joy in giving.
- The truth is always better than any other option.
What, then, are the sources of this wholesome tradition in the series?
Stan and Jan Berenstain were, respectively, a Jewish (though not religiously Jewish) and Episcopalian couple, both born in the early 1920s. Stan served in WWII, as did so many young men in his generation. The couple lived into the 2000s, and their son Mike took over full control of the enterprise in 2012 at his mother’s death.
The Christian element of the books became much more overt under Mike—even when he was working with his mother on the series after Stan passed away—with lovely stories illustrating the religious meaning of Christmas and Easter and referring often to Biblical passages. But though the earlier books are not explicitly Christian, a deeply Judeo-Christian moral framework was there throughout. There are numerous stories from the time of Stan and Jan’s editorship that directly refer to God, even if in a language that remains more oblique than that of the later Mike books.
I’ll close with a note that gives my heart a warm glow: I just showed my youngest all the images in this article, and she instantly knew the names of the books from which they were taken. Clearly, the Berenstain Bears tradition and the timeless values therein will be remembered and passed on.
Image credit: Flickr-Schu, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0