What I Learned From Tarzan’s Dad

Dear Lewis,

This morning, you took a giant step toward becoming a man: you watched the 1999 Disney movie Tarzan. As the movie played, we played. We wrestled, rode your tiger Wheely Bug, built towering edifices of letter-embossed blocks, and, when our stomachs growled, we ate chicken and beef while not wearing shirts.

In short, we behaved like men.

By the time the credits began to roll, and Phil Collins sang his final song, you were exhausted. You, my fierce jungle man, laid your head across my lap, and sucked on your pacifier. As I stroked your hair I replayed the movie in my head. The storyteller in me identified the movie’s theme, the story beats and plot points.

However, the dad in me zeroed in on the lesson learned by Tarzan’s father figure, Kerchak the gorilla.

By the time you’re old enough to read this you will have watched Tarzan a thousand times. So, you know Kerchak’s mate Kala rescues baby Tarzan after his parents are killed by a cheetah. Kerchack is reluctant to allow Tarzan into the family because ‘he’s not one of us.’

Like so many of my friends, Tarzan isn’t raised by his real dad. And the stand-in dad he does have is kind of a jerk.

But he does care about Tarzan. He may not say it, but he shows it. Kerchack rescues Tarzan a few times throughout the film. He scolds Tarzan when he behaves foolishly, telling Tarzan his actions could get him killed.

Lewis, Kerchak made a lot of parenting mistakes. As your dad, if I don’t recognize and learn from Kerchak then I will be at fault. So, among other things, here’s what I learned from Kerchak and Tarzan:

If I’m going to be a good dad I have to be both a foundation and a stepping-stone.

As a young, impressionable child, Tarzan looked to Kerchak for acceptance, approval, and guidance. He looked to his father to validate who he was. Instead of receiving the warmth of a father’s love, Tarzan continually got the cold shoulder. Like so many boys, Tarzan was raised by his mother, all the while, trying desperately to win his father’s approval. He may have been a brave, strong, adventurous man, but his identity was shaky because it wasn’t built on a strong foundation.

As a result, when the time came for Tarzan to strike out on his own, when he found a woman who loved him, when a whole new world was opened up to him, we see fear in him for the first time. He’s afraid that if he steps out on his own that the fragile foundation of his relationship with his dad will crumble.

Instead of being a stepping-stone, the broken foundation of their relationship became a millstone wrapped around Tarzan’s neck, drowning him in a sea of self-doubt.

Kerchak’s heart didn’t melt until it was too late, finally acknowledging Tarzan as his son with his dying breath. You’ll learn that all successful movies, and all good stories have a universal theme, something the majority of people can relate to. Sadly, the story of Tarzan and Kerchak is all too relatable for most boys.

Lewis, you will never relate to Tarzan’s struggle to win his father’s love and acceptance, because my love isn’t something you can win. It can’t be eared. Ever.

But, I give it to you freely. No strings attached. No questions asked.

I promise, to the best of my ability, to be the most solid foundation I can be. And I promise not to allow being solid to turn my heart to stone. I promise, to the best of my ability, to bend over backwards in order to be the most dependable stepping-stone on your journey toward what God has for you, the same way Papa has always done so for me.

Lewis, if you’ll keep watching awesome movies with me I’ll do my best to absorb every ounce of wisdom I can from them. I love you, with all of my heart.

I’m humbled that God would allow me to be a major part of your foundation. I’m honored that he has called me to be your stepping-stone.

I love you, Lewis.

– Dad

Have you seen the movie? What did you learn from Tarzan and Kerchak?

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