I honestly never thought I would be writing this. I absolutely love the meme of Bad Dad Goku. I love the joke that Piccolo is Gohan’s real father, but after re-watching the series and seriously considering all the factors, I have to admit that Goku, while definitely not being a good father, isn’t actually a bad one either.
It’s mentioned in the DBS: Broly movie that Saiyan men don’t usually father their children, which makes sense since most of their young get shipped off to other planets as infants. Moreover, Goku was mostly raised by a gang of teenage idiots and a perverted hermit, so aside from a few formative years with his adopted grandpa, he didn’t really have any idea what a good father was. Goku loves his sons, but Akira Toriyama didn’t really write DBZ to reflect that. Not only is DBZ notorious for giving it’s ZERO downtime between life or death situations, it also forced to stray from it’s original plot multiple times. For example, Dragon Ball Z was originally supposed to end after Goku defeated Frieza. This was meant to be Goku’s greatest, and final victory. Become the legend of his lost people and avenge his species by destroying their oppressor. Unfortunately, capitalism and Dragon Ball Z’s extreme success forced Toriyama to continue, so he went through the infuriating process of creating new villains over and over again to satisfy corporate executives and keep his story going. This led to an attempt to make Gohan the new protagonist, which would explain why it was important for him to be at every major event since the very beginning of Dragon Ball Z. This plan comes into fruition of course, after Goku sacrifices himself to save Earth from Cell’s self destruct. Now, with Goku fully accepting that his time has passed, it’s left to Gohan to defend the earth. There is no way Gohan could have become the protagonist if Goku had lived. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why you don’t watch Boruto, and if you do, why it’s not very good.
A sad fact of most shonen anime is that the reason the parents are either dead or absent, is because they have to be. Shonen heroes are almost always teenage boys who find out they have some sort of magical destiny and have to face off against great evil for years and years, constantly training to ensure victory and save the world. No reasonable parent would allow that. Take, for example, Deku’s mom in My Hero Academia. Every time we see her she is crying, or shaking with worry about her son, hence the plot moving all the students into dorm rooms. In the case of Dragon Ball Z and Gohan, Goku couldn’t be there. If he was, we would never actually fear for Gohan, and his victories wouldn’t feel quite as triumphant.
With the loss of Goku, earth was supposed to get a hero who fought simply for the love of his planet, and for moral reasons, unlike his father, who mostly fought for the joy of fighting. This point was driven home when Gohan tossed aside his mostly pacifist ways and unleashed his full power on Cell. The problem however, is that Gohan simply doesn’t have the right character traits to be a good follow up as a protagonist. Goku is happy go lucky, bold, and almost always confident. He’s literally the blueprint for a proper shonen protagonist. Going from someone like that, to a awkward and somewhat shy teenager who seems to be just as socially inept as his father for reasons that honestly make no sense, just doesn’t work. This, and most likely pressure from executives, led to Toriyama reviving Goku and giving what was essentially a act of fan service, Goku vs Majin Vegeta. Forced to re-introduce his original protagonist, Toriyama gave his audience exactly what they wanted, a battle with his biggest rival. But, imagine for a second, and alternative path. Imagine a world where Vegeta still let himself go bad, but instead of it being because of his overwhelming desire to beat Goku, it was because he hated thinking Gohan might be stronger than him. This would have put our new protagonist in an unbelievably amazing conflict. This would have been the moment Gohan completely stepped out of his father’s shadow by defeating Goku’s biggest rival. Or maybe Gohan losses to Vegeta, and then Vegeta still self destructs in his act of sacrifice to destroy Buu, which still turns out to be in vain. Now our hero would have to defeat a evil so powerful that even our most powerful rival character failed. Unfortunately that was not the case. Instead, Toriyama brings Goku back with a strange plot device. has him defeat the new threat, and then revives Goku completely, thus removing the threat of death completely.
With this plot disaster, we’re left with a hero who was meant to make room for his son, returning to take that space back. Now the hardships Gohan had to overcome in his childhood, and every victory and triumph he’s ever had get called into question. Why’d he have to be kidnapped by Raditz? Why’d he have to go to Namek? Why’d he have to fight Frieza? Truth be told, there are small indicators in the plot that, had they been capitalized on, would have removed nearly all of those obstacles. However, those obstacles were intended to shape Gohan into a protagonist, which how, he’s not. In both series that follow Dragon Ball Z, Gohan is instead, retired to a life of science and fatherhood.
Now in these follow up series we get to see why Goku isn’t a terrible father. He’s wonderful with Goten. Dragon ball Super, in an attempt to separate itself from it’s fight heavy predecessor, is full of moments where characters relationships deepen and we see how much they care for each other. Vegeta reveals he actually is a good husband and is trying his best to be a good father. Goku is farming, because he knows making an honest living is important to Chi-Chi. Even moreso, he completely supports Chi-Chi’s obsession with Goten’s education, unlike he did with Gohan. Having already pushed fighting on Gohan and seen that fail, Goku is completely in support of Goten focusing on his studies and not following in his footsteps. See, unlike DBZ, Super actually gives Goku time to breathe, and be a father. With no plans to make Goten a protagonist, Toriyama allows Goten to be a happy kid enjoying life in a two parent household and boasting that his Dad is the strongest fighter in the universe. His father has never hurt him, never wronged him, and never abandoned him. Hell, even in the abyssmal Dragon ball GT, Goku seems completely okay with Goten becoming a bit of a fuckboy who is focused on dating as many girls as possible. If anything, you could make the old parenting joke that he screwed up with his first kid and was better the second time around, but considering Gohan’s working his dream job, is happily married, and seems to be doing a decent job of being a father himself, I’d have to disagree with you. Goku has a number of flaws, but parenting isn’t one of them.