Goku’s status as a bad dad has been one of the most enduring parts of the anime community and it isn’t hard to see why. Between being obsessed with training or simply being dead, we seldom see the Saiyan warrior fom Dragon Ball spend quality time with his two sons. This take has been rampant throughout the fandom, becoming the basis of countless memes and a huge plot point in Team Four Star’s incredibly popular Dragon Ball Z Abridged series. People constantly cite Goku as one of the worst anime dads because he spends huge chunks of the show’s lengthy episode count either dead or training.
It's something I’ve been reflecting on a lot as the due date for my own first child rapidly approaches; I’m just not convinced the 'Goku is a bad dad' meme holds water to actual inspection. There are ample moments when Goku displays great parenting skills. Sure, he’s a bit simple and hyper-focused on training, but there are important lessons every parent can take from how he interacts with his kids.
The importance of work and play
One of the most important things a parent can instill in their children is a healthy approach to life. Knowing how to balance the ever-increasing demands of the world with our human need to cut loose and enjoy life. Goku’s work, such as it is, is training to be the strongest fighter he can be, and he is completely dedicated to it. That’s something many people cite as evidence that he’s an absent father, but I would argue that’s a shallow interpretation of what is happening.
Goku trains because he loves it, this is true, but he also makes time to play with Gohan. Goku always shows him that it is okay to enjoy life despite the dangers they face. When the two entered the Hyperbolic Time Chamber to train for their fight against the Androids, the weight of the world was firmly on their shoulders. Fail, and everyone they know would almost assuredly die.
Despite this pressure, Goku made sure that they made time to enjoy their time together. There was an element of play to their training regimen. They laugh while pushing each other. They relax and enjoy some food. When they finish their year of training together, they spend the next week relaxing and fishing. This is because Goku knows Gohan needs that joy in his life just as much as he needs to work hard.
Too often, parents focus on instilling a strong work ethic into their kids and forget how important it is to have fun. Entire generations of fathers have denied themselves the smallest joys in life in the pursuit of working as hard as they possibly could, thinking that is the example they want to set for their children. While I don’t entirely think that is necessarily wrong, it's not the kind of father I want to be. I want to be more like Goku and teach my kids the value of small moments of joy within the chaotic world we live in.
Know when to let go
Goku is a training fanatic. His life centers around becoming stronger, both to protect those he loves but also because it is what gives him purpose in life. For a long time, he expected Gohan would inherit that desire by the simple virtue of being his son. Like many parents, Goku makes the mistake of seeing his children as a carbon copy of himself. This mistake comes to a head when he fails to understand why Gohan doesn’t simply awaken his inner strength without a second thought.
It’s a tough lesson for any parent to learn, but Goku does it with surprising ease. During the Buu Saga and into Dragon Ball Super, it is clear that Goku has learned not to pressure his sons to follow his dream. He never chastises Gohan for becoming a scholar or pushes for Goten to become a fighter. He celebrates their decisions and gives them the freedom to be their own person. There is a sense of peace with which he embraces the people they have become after letting go of who he thought they would be.
What makes this such a great lesson is that Goku clearly doesn’t always understand his sons, particularly Gohan. During Super, he muses on how Gohan turned out so different from himself but he also never looks to change him. Because, just like my father never really understood why I quit a stable, full-time job to write about anime on the internet, parents don’t always get why their kids do things. What’s important is that they let them grow beyond their initial vision for their future.
Believe in your kids (Even when they don’t)
Perhaps the most cited reason for Goku being a bad father is when he sends Gohan out to fight Cell. It’s not a fight anyone else believes he can win, including Gohan himself. However, during their time together training, Goku knew his son was capable of greatness. He saw the boy’s potential and did everything in his power to nurture it.
The thing is, no one else saw the same potential in Gohan. Even Piccolo, who is often cited by the fandom as Gohan’s real dad, couldn’t see past the kid he had always been. Gohan certainly doesn’t see what his father sees in him. Goku is the only one who knows that his son has the power to save them all.
Remember that Goku’s entire personality revolves around being the strongest and proving that he is the best fighter in the world. In normal circumstances, throwing hands with the likes of Cell would be everything he could possibly want out of life. A strong opponent designed on a genetic level to be the perfect fighter? That’s like waving a red rag in front of a charging bull to someone like Goku, yet he happily steps aside to let his son take center stage because he knows, in his heart, that this is Gohan’s moment and not his.
The world is a big, scary place and it will always find a way to grind you down. We should all be so lucky to have a dad like Goku who never stop believing in us even when everyone, even ourselves, has written us off.
Pick your kids up when they fall
In a universe filled with pink rage monsters and space demons, sometimes things go awry. Sometimes kids reach too far and, despite all the preparation in the world, they fail. And that’s okay. Failure is as much a part of life as success. When Gohan made the mistake of toying with Cell rather than finishing the fight, it nearly meant the end of the world. Years later, Gohan would make the same mistake against Buu, stringing the fight out a bit too long and losing the advantage he had gained.
Both times, Goku was there to pick up the pieces. Fans might see this as Goku refusing to cede the spotlight to other characters, but all he is doing is exactly what every parent does. He is letting his son make mistakes and grow through them. It is scary, but we can’t protect our kids from every failure. They need to experience coming up short at times or they’ll never know how far they can reach.
When it happens, Goku doesn’t chide his son. He doesn’t tell him off for being arrogant or cocky. He steps in and does whatever he can to fix the situation. Whether that is teleporting Cell to another planet before he can explode or fighting in Gohan’s stead, Goku saves the day without being arrogant or dismissive of his son’s efforts.
No one is going to suggest Goku is a perfect father, but who is? We’re imperfect humans and, as a result, imperfect parents. But don’t let the memes fool you; there is plenty that dads – and dads-to-be, in my case – can learn from how he protects his family and the lessons he imparts to his children.