There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when I had conversations with grown-ups on a regular basis. We would talk about grown-up things, like politics and problems with society and, often, the most recent work of great literature we had just finished, being sure to include our detailed analyses and critiques of all of the above. We knew a lot back then; we even came up with an answer from time to time…
And then I had my first child and became a stay-at-home-mom.
Answers and analysis were a luxury of my former life that was necessarily jettisoned off my ship of motherhood to keep from sinking. This would likely have been the case for me whether or not I went back to work. Having just finished a graduate program in literature, I was very used to knowing how I stood. I had solid proof of my performance in my GPA, my professors’ comments, and my peers’ respect, and it gave me confidence to feel that I was doing a good job. But suddenly my job was to keep another human alive, to raise her to become a productive member of society without deeply traumatizing her adorable little psyche. And there was no report card. No grades. No feedback. No teacher conferences. How in the world was I supposed to know if I was doing it right?! I have had to try very hard to stop looking for the “right” answer as a parent. There is often more than one, and sometimes none at all. How can you get graded on something like that? And, really, this permanent mommy-brain of mine is in no condition to be evaluated anyway. It feels soft and squishy, and when I try to think outside the toy box it regularly shuts down.
These days, although most of my daily conversations involve trying to keep up with the scattered thoughts of a three-year-old, and running a constant, repetitive narration to help my one-year-old learn words (e.g., “Yes, that’s a dog. Hello, dog! A doggie— there’s a dog. The dog is walking. He’s walking the dog. Can you say, ‘d-d-d-dog’? Bye-bye, doggie!” and so on ad nauseam), I do occasionally speak with adults. We talk of potty training, and sleepless nights, and preschools, and the restaurants with the best sand boxes. I love it; I need it; it grounds me and makes me feel connected to the mothers of the world. But deep, intellectual conversations are hard to come by on the playground. What’s a mama to do with all that pent-up intellectual energy?
I had a choice: tear apart my own performance as a parent, over-analyzing every choice and its consequences, or find a different outlet. Conveniently, I have come across a number of children’s books that trigger in me the hypercritical voice and instill a drive to deliberately misinterpret what they truly represent. (But, please note that I spent, and continue to spend, way too much time over-analyzing my parenting choices, leading to extra anxiety, insomnia, worry, and other fun stuff. It has helped but not cured me, to direct this energy outward.)
Here are a few of the offending titles found on my daughter’s bookshelf, and reasons for my faux umbrage:
Guess How Much I Love You: Children should never feel like they are in competition with the parent. If this mirrors your relationship with your child, please start saving for her therapy now.
I Love You Stinky Face: This book glorifies a child’s anxiety about being accepted by the parent. A psychoanalytical look at this work reveals many Freudian tropes, including Oedipal, oral, and phallic neuroses.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: An existential retelling of the pointlessness of Life. Sartre would love it.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: If you totally gorge yourself, you will be beautiful? Gluttony is cool? Not so, Mr. Carle. This thinly veiled story of an eating disorder sends wrong, and even dangerous, messages about healthy eating on every page.
So, you see, just because I am up to my ears in the preschool set and all its accouterments does not mean I have to dumb myself down. And neither do you, mamas! Here is a little food for your brain to help push out the incessant repetition of “The Wheels on the Bus” (a brilliant song in many ways, perhaps even a little before its time, but a terror as an ear worm…). Enjoy!
You Lookin’ at Me?
An Examination of Questionable Themes in Bill Martin, Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Identifying adult themes and concepts in children’s literature is neither new nor novel. Fables, fairy tales, myths, and the like have been used for ages to teach the younger generation lessons and morals in child-accessible language with characters (often animals) that are approachable and identifiable. These stories serve a great purpose in cultures all over the world, helping adults teach children what they should know as they enter into society. In stories like Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairytales, the lessons are usually pretty obvious: beware of strangers, look before you leap, listen to your parents, etc. However, as I read the nightly dose of child indoctrination to my girl, I am often shocked and appalled at many of the ideas and themes hidden between the lines. Here I take a closer look at one modern example.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Eric Carle illustrates this Bill Martin, Jr. “beloved classic” (back cover). In this book, animals are questioned about the world around them and answer in the most simplistic of terms: color. On the surface it would seem to be a primer of sorts, teaching children about colors, as well as identifying several animals. But what other lessons does it teach?
Firstly, it teaches children to identify based on color. Pure hypocrisy when we think about how political correctness has completely disallowed the use of color as a marker. If a child goes to kindergarten and identifies his friend as being black or yellow or brown or white, you might expect a parent/teacher conference soon after. And, although it might have made the illustrations from Mr. Carle more complex, Mr. Martin, Jr. could have chosen a different series of adjectives for his book: Brave Horse, Brave Horse, What do you see? I see a cooperative cat looking at me.
Martin, Jr. also chooses to identify his animals with the most traditional color, not allowing for the variations that nature so wonderfully offers. And animals, as with people, are hardly ever found in their ideal state. The perfect “green frog” is likely streaked with brown out in the real world pond; the “yellow duck” is going to be hard to find outside of a bathtub. And so, this text teaches children to expect unrealistic ideals. (As a side note, it could be argued that Carle, perhaps intuitively, felt the negative messaging within this collaborative text and tried to remedy it on his own by creating the subversive book, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, where the normative identifiers have been replaced with unexpected adjectives: polka-dot donkey, black polar bear, etc.)
Secondly, this text encourages a sense of narcissism that is already rampant in today’s culture. Each animal, when asked about his or her observations of the world answers, “I see a [insert animal here] looking at me” (emphasis added). In a world of “selfies” and Facebook pages that assume the world must want know what you are eating/doing/watching/liking at any given minute, this book is merely echoing what our children can’t help but learn from today’s society: that everyone is looking at them. The take-away here is not just that life is all about me, but, rather, it’s all about me for the benefit of my audience: society is “looking at me.”
With all eyes upon the child, real or perceived, an argument could be made for Martin, Jr.’s attempt to invoke Foucault’s panopticon. Foucault describes a prison structure where all of the inmates believe they are being watched at all times, even though they are not. The prisoners then behave according to the rules, fearing to be caught by the watching eyes. Whether they are actually being observed does not matter; it is the perception of observation that encourages obedience. This is the same effect where, if we see a surveillance camera pointed in our direction, we assume we are being watched and are less likely to break the rules of the social contract, like stealing or picking our nose, even if we have no evidence that the camera is even functioning. In this way, Martin, Jr. may be attempting to instill within our children the sense that they are being watched—looked at—at all times, in hopes that they will more readily comply with the rules imposed upon them. This can also be seen as an incarnation of Orwell’s presence of Big Brother. Once this paranoia is firmly imposed, Martin, Jr. can more easily interpolate his desired doctrine into the susceptible minds of children, presumably found in his follow-up text, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?
Although this controversial tract clearly promotes ideals that I do not want my child to absorb, it actually does teach colors and the names of animals, and has attractive, bright colored pictures. The simple rhyme couplets (…see,…me) serve as good phonics-based learning too. And so, Brown Bear, Brown Bear,… will stay on our shelf for the time being, if not as an ideal, then as a collection of teachable moments.
And there you have it! A ridiculous use of brainpower? Perhaps. Especially when it seems like there isn’t much there to spare. But it feels good to get the cobwebs out, doesn’t it? And, I have to believe it is a lot healthier than tabulating the number of minutes the baby slept at nap time today versus yesterday or fretting about which applesauce pouch is the most organic.
So, next time you’re feeling a little dull, look around for the nearest innocuous object—a picture book or Lego set can work nicely—and flex your brain at it! You too can practice the ancient art of thinking, and you can do it in the privacy of your own home, perhaps even while the children are watching! Let the critic in you go to town on the poor, defenseless children’s item, and save yourself and your children from feeling your intellectual wrath.