Dad’s tall tales

Two Calvin and Hobbes cartoons that came past me recently, showing Calvin’s dad spouting misinformation about birth and infant development:



A form of parental kidding, almost always performed by a father rather than a mother, and most commonly directed at a boy — here a deliberate scheme of messing with the kid’s mind.

In a similar vein, from a Zits cartoon not long ago: on 3/25/18 in “Two more Sunday cartoons”: “Fathers have been known to fabricate stories for their children”, as in #2 there, “If Orion’s Belt, why not Orion’s Fanny Pack”:


These interactions are framed as affectionate, but the tinge of aggression, even malice, in them is hard to ignore.

Why mess with a kid’s mind? What lessons are dads teaching their sons through this kind of kidding? I guess it’s a form of tough love: the boy needs to learn to be hard and wary, needs to know that all interactions with men are competitive — though often usefully so, the competition can make you a better man — and so you can’t trust any man fully, even your dad, maybe especially your dad.

Some commenters on these strips about Calvin and his dad have just decided that the dad is a total asshole — who would treat a kid that way? — but I think it’s more complicated than that. The kid needs to be toughened up, to stand up like a man in a hard world.

(My own dad, seeing very early on that I would not take well to this routine, however lovingly intended, never did it with me.)

Kidding. There’s a lot to be said about kidding as a set of routines of social interaction: they’re culture-specific and variable from person to person; and they can have quite a range of social meanings (as I’ll note below). I’m hoping that there’s some useful analytic literature in sociolinguistics or anthropological linguistics, but I’m entirely ignorant of it.

A start, from NOAD:

verb kid: [a] deceive (someone) in a playful or teasing way: you’re kidding me!| [no object]: we were just kidding around. [b] [with object and clause] deceive or fool (someone): he likes to kid everyone he’s the big macho tough guy| they kid themselves that it’s still the same.

Phrases: [a] just kidding: informal used to indicate that a statement is not to be taken seriously: I am quite ready to retire. (Just kidding!). [b] no kiddinginformal used to emphasize the truth of a statement: no kidding, she’s gone. [c] you must be (or have to be) kidding. informal used to express incredulity about someone’s actions or claims: two hours to make a hot dog — you must be kidding.

There’s a huge range of social interactions here, from deceptive talk that is transparently unserious to both parties (and so serves as shared playful fabulism) to quite aggressive verbal acts (which, however, can be hypocritically disavowed as “just kidding”).

One subtype, quite different in tone from the “tough love” kidding I talked about above, arises from masculine unwillingness to admit ignorance — ignorance is weakness — so that rather than looking things up or exploring ways to discover the truth, some men just make things up. Especially to their kids, when the kids expect their dads to know everything important (after all, they’re adults).

That’s deliberate deceit, but for self-protective motives.

The C&H files. Over the years, Calvin and Hobbes has looked at dad stories of  many kinds. There was a series specifically on Dads Explaining Science, with six strips, and then an occasional dad lore strip every so often, two of which are collected below.

(#4) Dad Science 1: bridge load limits

(#5) Dad Science 2: red sunsets

(#6) Dad Science 3: relativity

(#7) Dad Science 4: bank machines

(#8) Dad Science 5: floating ice

(#9) Dad Science 6: old b&w photos

(#10) Dad Lore 1: wind

(#11) Dad Lore 2: the ol’ college try

Ask Dad; he will know.

3 Responses to “Dad’s tall tales”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Re #7: I mostly missed Bob & Ray’s radio shows, but Mad Magazine used to replay them as cartoons now and then, and I remember one in which the interviewee was the person responsible for turning on and off the lights in refrigerators all over the world.

    Re #9: “The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s” — specifically, in 1939, on the way from Kansas to Oz.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    “Some commenters on these strips about Calvin and his dad have just decided that the dad is a total asshole”

    Well, given that much of the strip is built around the idea that Calvin is a total asshole, he must have gotten it from somewhere.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Guido on Facebook:

    Dad Science #1 is essentially true, except the bridges are scaled down segments and they use weights and jacks to stress them till the fracture.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: