I believe the author CS Lewis was correct when he said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I enjoy a great many books written for children and I often find myself identifying with the adults in children’s books, finding inspiration in some characters while hoping to avoid the characteristics of others.
Consider this poem by Roald Dahl providing insight into the personalities of James’ two aunts in James and the Giant Peach.
“I look and smell,” Aunt Sponge declared, “as lovely as a rose!
Just feast your eyes upon my face, observe my shapely nose!
Behold my heavenly silky locks!
And if I take off both my socks
You’ll see my dainty toes.”
“But don’t forget,” Aunt Spiker cried, “how much your tummy shows!”
Aunt Sponge went red, Aunt Spiker said, “my sweet, you cannot win,
Behold MY gorgeous curvy shape, my teeth, my charming grin!
Oh beauteous me! How I adore
My radiant look! And please ignore
The pimple on my chin.”
My dear old trout!” Aunt Sponge cried out, “You’re only bones and skin!”
“Such loveliness as I possess can only truly shine
In Hollywood!” Aunt Sponge declared. “Oh, wouldn’t that be fine!”
I’d capture all the nations’ hearts!
They’d give me all the leading parts!
The stars would all resign!”
“I think you’d make,” Aunt Spiker said, “a lovely Frankenstein.”
The poem makes us laugh at the ridiculous supposition that the two aunts would make good role models for parents. Few readers mourn as the peach rolls over the pair and James makes his great escape and embarks on his cross Atlantic adventure.
More current children’s books reflect the complexities surrounding families today. Keven Henkes is an insightful author/illustrator who manages to capture children’s thought processes through modern predicaments in his books geared toward young children.
I am a big fan of picture books for children. I’ve written in the past about the lessons children can learn from picture books, but perhaps some may be surprised to learn that my all time favorite parenting guide is also a picture book.
Although I have read many research-based books on child development and parenting, it is a set of phrases from a picture book that echo in my mind as my parenting mantra when I work with children and their parents.
In the book Owen, Henkes introduces readers to a family who is confronted with a developmental/behavioral/social dilemma. Owen is securely attached to his blanket and the adults in his life worry about him starting school. Surely a school-aged boy cannot bring a blanket with him to the classroom! What would the teacher and the other students think and say? Henkes brilliantly describes the complicated actions, words and feelings of Owen and his parents as they struggle with issues related to Owen’s development.
“Isn’t he getting a little old to be carrying that thing around? Haven’t you heard of the Blanket Fairy?” Owens’ nosey neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers asks Owen’s parents.
Owen’s parents haven’t. Mrs. Tweezers fills them in.
After Mrs. Tweezers’ suggestion fails, she offers another bit of advice.
“Can’t be a baby forever. Haven’t you heard of the vinegar trick?”
Again, Owen’s parents haven’t heard of this helpful suggestion. Mrs. Tweezers fills them in.
And again, after another failed attempt, Mrs. Tweezers weighs in.
“Can’t bring a blanket to school. Haven’t you heard of saying no?”
Owen’s parents haven’t. Mrs. Tweezers fills them in.
In my mind, Mrs. Tweezers has come to represent collective expert opinion on child development and parenting. This expert advice may come from a neighbor, friend, teacher, book, article, parent coach or research. Parents today have a surplus of knowledge related to child rearing and often an abundance of willing participants simply waiting to give advice on the development/behavioral/social needs of children and their families.
“Haven’t you heard of _________?”
The parents haven’t.
Mrs. Tweezers/the experts fills them in.
The parents try it. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t.
The brilliance of Kevin Henkes’ book however is in the ending.
After trying all of Mrs. Tweezers’ “excellent” suggestions and finding that they did not work for their family,
“Owen’s mother had an idea. ‘It was an absolutely wonderful, positively perfect, especially terrific idea.’”
Owen’s parents did their research. They tried problem solving and listening to the “professional” advice Mrs. Tweezers gave them. Ultimately, they listened to their son and came up with a solution that worked for him. They understood his needs better than anyone. Through their multiple attempts at finding the best way to support Owen’s needs as he reached a new level of development, they came up with an inventive way for Owen to continue to feel secure as he started school.
The best line in the book is at the end:
“And Mrs. Tweezers didn’t say a thing.”
We can all learn from Owen’s parents. They were willing to listen and learn from the “expert” in their life. They tried to implement the advice they were given.
They ultimately considered what worked best for their child in their particular circumstances and found a way to meet their child’s needs in the best way possible for him.
Haven’t you heard of ______?
Perhaps you have not.
Someone will be happy to fill you in.
Then you can use that information to inform your own decisions within your family context.