Goku’s tenacity, desire to defend the helpless, and incredible strength make him one of anime’s most admirable characters. But not everything about Goku is so praiseworthy, specifically not his parenting skills. Throughout the Dragon Ball manga, Goku appears to care for and love his family—however, he’s constantly absent from his children’s lives. He missed most of Gohan’s childhood and remained absent for most of Goten’s as well. Goku explains to Vegeta that he was absent at the birth of his children. He was on other planets and realms training. Goku may be a person who appears to be pure of heart, but he’s not a good father.
We could talk about other dangerous examples such as how Goku placed a Dragon Ball on Gohan’s hat when he knew full well it was sought by dangerous beings, but I digress. Absence is truly Goku’s parenting crime. In my piece on Fullmetal Alchemist, I spoke about another absent father:
In the Fullmetal Alchemist series, the first time we really meet the Elric brothers’ father, it is a disappointment. Van Hohenheim reveals that he ran away when the going got tough; he also revealed his own inadequacy saying he did not know how to raise his own sons. It was heartbreaking and very real feeling. As a Dad myself, I feel inadequate at times, but you need to be present to be a parent. As a Christian I am called to provide for my family (1 Timothy 5:8). One needs to be present in order to do that! Van Hohenheim’s absence made this nearly impossible. By running away, he was shirking his parental responsibilities. Were there extenuating circumstances? Perhaps, but as a parent I say—I don’t care. His responsibility was first with his children and he should not have fled when the going got tough. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ is an old cliche. That doesn’t mean they flee from their difficulties—it means they get started on getting things done.
As with Van Hohenheim, Goku was rarely present in the lives of his children. Now, he has a good excuse for some of it: he’s dead for portions of their lives, but even that argument falls apart as Goku had opportunities to speak with them through King Kai or come home to visit. He instead chose to train and fight instead of spending time with his family. The lack of affection and presence from a parent can and does harm a person emotionally. It can also serve as a motivator to be a better parent for your own children. We see this in Gohan who is over the moon when he discovers Videl is pregnant. His excitement is contagious and he plans to be a present father.
I strive to be the same for my four children. I help teach them at church. I participate at their school. I try to be active and present. Yet, my career had taken me away from my children from time to time. There were times where I couldn’t be that present father, but I called and kept in touch each time I was away, and because it was known how long I would be away, my family saw the end, and we knew a day would come when we would be present together again. Gohan and Goten don’t enjoy the same.
Parenthood is not an easy job. It gets messy and requires much of a person. Goku’s counterpart, Vegeta, understands this concept. He is always present with his children. He constantly worries about his wife and children. He grows, he changes, and he learns to love others more than himself. In the end, though, that’s the one area in which Goku succeeds—self sacrifice.
While Goku is rarely present, he doesn’t think twice about sacrificing himself for the sake of his planet or his family. He is always willing to take the physical toll and pain of combat, to become the sacrificial lamb, appearing to put others before himself. However, his motivation is often suspect and based on a desire to grow as a warrior. Self-growth is not a bad goal in and of itself; however, Goku is selfish in his desire and not as selfless as he presents.
The Dragon Ball franchise is silly, fast paced, and fun. Taken at face value, it is a pure adrenaline tale of action and adventure. Yet, beneath the obvious outer layer, there is more to see with each of these characters. Goku’s static personality always seems motivated purely by desire to become stronger. While he loves his family, they are not his ultimate motivation. I try to make them mine.
The Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball Super manga can be read digitally at Shonen Jump.