Imagine the following scenario:
A father and his five-year-old daughter head out to a basketball court at the local playground. He carries his regulation ball on his hip. She rolls her kid-sized version in front of her, occasionally kicking it to keep it moving. When they reach the court, the father shoots a couple of shots while his daughter proceeds to dribble her ball around the court with two hands. After a few minutes, the daughter says,
When he looks her direction she begins awkwardly batting at her ball with just her right hand, managing to dribble it four times before it gets away from her. After corralling the ball, she looks up proudly at her father. He smiles quietly back at her. Then he leans forward slightly and dribbles his own ball effortlessly back and forth between his legs.
“Neat,” says the little girl.
A few minutes later, the little girl runs over to the basket and stands directly underneath the net. Imitating the players she has seen playing on television, she starts jumping up towards the hoop, stretching her arms high above her head.
“Look Daddy, I can almost touch it,” she says.
Her father with the same bemused smile as before walks over to where she is standing. Then taking a large hop from just behind her gives the net a hard swat.
“Whoa,” says the little girl with a touch of awe.
Another few minutes pass, and now the little girl is standing at the free throw line. She bounces the ball a couple of times and takes a long look at the rim. Then with a hand on each side of the ball, she lowers it slowly down between her knees and sweeps it up into the air. Somehow the ball makes it up on top of the rim where it bounces twice and slips down through the mesh of the net.
“Yes!” shouts the little girl. “Look Daddy, I made one.”
Once again the father flashes that smile. Then he walks over to the top of the key, bounces his ball a couple of times, and nonchalantly puts up a jumpshot. The ball travels a perfect arc and drops down through the net without touching the rim.
“Wow, I wish I could do that,” says the little girl
Now, what do you think about this father? He seems like a bit of an asshole, doesn’t he? I mean, every time his daughter shows him something, he proceeds to do the same thing only higher, farther, or with more complexity. While he doesn’t go about this in a taunting way, these actions serve no real purpose but to diminish the achievements that his daughter has so proudly shown him. It’s not very supportive nor a particularly good example for how to build healthy relationships.
So, why is it that so many people love a children's book in which a parent is celebrated for acting in exactly the same way as our imaginary father on the basketball court?
The book I’m referring to is Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You. In it, two rabbits – an adult and a child – engage in a game of one-upmanship in their quest to say how much they love each other. The game begins with the little rabbit telling the big rabbit “Guess how much I love you.” The little rabbit then stretches his arms out wide and says “This much.” The big rabbit smiles, and, doing the same thing with his arms, says “Well I love you this much.” They then proceed in back and forth fashion through raised arms, extended legs, jumps, etc. until the little rabbit begins to fall asleep. At this point, the little rabbit presents his final claim: “I love you all the way up to the moon.” The big rabbit ultimately concludes the book by replying: “I love you all the way up to the moon – and back.”
According to the publisher this book has sold over 15 million copies and is published in 37 languages. The children's book review publication Booklist gave it a starred review and said about the book, “There’s not a wrong note in this tender tale.” Internet reviewers on Google love it (see these reviews)
Am I the only one who thinks the adult rabbit, like the father in the scenario I laid out at the beginning of this post, is a bit of an asshole? Aren’t the adult rabbit’s constant moves to up the ante on the little rabbit evidence of an ego that’s out of whack? Even when channeled through professions of love, this kind of behavior doesn’t feel particularly tender to me. In fact, it seems to me that the adult rabbit’s answer to the question of how much love it has for the little rabbit should be, “Not enough to restrain myself from besting your every move.”
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens in children's books all the time. (The young ape who throws a temper tantrum and gets what he wants in Jez Alborough’s Yes and the often blatantly antagonizing antics of Ian Falconer’s Olivia the pig are just two more examples.) The supposition of cuteness or silliness comes to excuse behavior in characters that we would find annoying, irritating, or downright intolerable in our own children or others with whom we live.
As a parent, I work very hard to model the behaviors that I want my children to emulate. This makes it incredibly frustrating to start reading a book with them and find that the very actions I am teaching them not to do are being celebrated as funny, amusing, or loving in the words and pictures of the book in my hand. It makes me wonder how many of these authors have children of their own.
This is the point in the post where the polemicist, having defined his target and explained the reasons for his outrage, makes some call to action – a boycott, a letter campaign, a new series of children's books. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. You see, I still have a copy of Guess How Much I Love You on our bookshelf. My mother gave it to me while I was in college and as such I have some sentimental attachment to it. In addition, I have come to find some value in having it around. As I sit and read through it with Polly and Pip, I get to engage them in a discussion about a complex social interaction and the types of reactions it generates. I get the opportunity to talk about the adult rabbit’s constant one-upmanship and why someone might find this annoying or disagreeable. I get to present Pip and Polly with alternative choices that both the adult rabbit and the little rabbit could have made to get the same point across. I get to add some texture and depth to the examples I try to present them every day.
As such, while I would never be inclined to give “Guess How Much I Love You” as a gift to anyone and I frequently wonder what kids learn as they read it, I am glad to have it on my bookshelf. Sometimes it takes seeing some of the wrong ways of doing something to make the right ways make sense.
Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?
Take a look at my blog at http://www.postindustrialparenthood.blogspot.com/.
There's a new post every Thursday.