Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breaking Down a Real Lemon

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,

“Look Daddy.”

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.

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Adam said...

That is the exact thing I said to my wife when we first read that book to my son. I thought "What a jerk, he won't just let his kid tell him how much he loves him." I was told to shut it. Now I just don't read that book to him, she can if she wants I guess.

ChapDad said...

I've always thought that rabbit's an arsehole...

Another one to look out for is the mouse in The Gruffalo. Jumped-up little bullshit-merchant...

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, on the other hand, is a fantastic coming-of-age tale, with an important lesson about binge-eating. It's possibly the best children's book ever, either that or Michael Rosen's Bear Hunt, which is about facing your problems head on, together as a family, so you're ready for anything when a bear is chasing you. Sound life lessons.


Scott said...

I feel exactly the same way. I always find myself wanting to shout, "Just let your son express his love for you!"

I'm confused about how you see Olivia as fitting into this same category though. Olivia (the original, I've never read the sequels) is one of my favorites. She's a quirky, spirited kid who exasperates everyone around her, but at the end of the day they all snuggle and love each other no matter what. Seems like a pretty good lesson to me, especially as a parent of a very "spirited" toddler.

Rachel said...

THIS!! EXACTLY! I had these same thoughts the first time I read this story to my daughter. I'm so glad it's not just me. And I feel the same way about Olivia. Not a big fan of how obnoxious she is, and gets away with it.

We have another Sam McBratney book that I actually really like, called "You're All Our Favorites" or some such. The message is good, the bears in the story are damn cute. I MUCH prefer to read this one than that rabbit one.

bigWOWO said...

Hmm...I have to disagree with you on this one. I don't think that the point of the story is that the adult is one-upping the child rabbit, but rather the point that the adult rabbit loves the child rabbit unconditionally and without limit--and yes, the adult loves the child more than the child loves the adult. See Hugo Schwyzer's post: said...


I think you're totally off base here.This is for children, not for you. What you're seeing is your own feelings and insecurities. The age group for this book, (IMHO) 2 - 6 to be read to and 4 - 8 year olds for self reading, are still learning the concepts of size and space and simple metaphor. For them it is an interesting set of ideas.

Watch and listen to any set of kids, of the same age group, playing and you will hear the same sorts of comparisons used for everything. "My dog is this big", and someone else says "my dog is THIS big" says another. This is the "My dad can beat up your dad" age.

Children are not little blank adults that are carefully programmed by parents and schools. They pass through sets of stages with different abilities, wants, needs, etc. We have to be careful to teach our kids without projecting and without treating them as little adults. Children are a different kind of human.

Jeff said...

Scott - I think Olivia is something of a Rorschach test for parents. Her antics walk the line between amusing things I can laugh at and annoying things that I don't want my children to do. The mixture had me skipping pages and confusing my kids so now I just skip the Olivia books.

bigWOWO - Your comment spurs two thoughts. First, one of the things I wanted to highlight with this post is that the point of parental lessons can often be undermined by the way such lessons are communicated. In the case of this book, I think the adult rabbit does just that. Unconditional love is the point of its efforts, but the format it uses works against that very idea.

Second, comparing the levels of love is much like comparing levels of pain: we know people feel them differently and this makes any sort of comparison between especially difficult. The idea that a parent should love a child more than the child loves a parent is a wonderful way to remind parents of the patience needed to raise a child. However, I don't see the constant repeating of this to a child as an effective tool in teaching them healthy ways of interacting with others. It models an 'I'm better than you" perspective that I find very irritating and unproductive when I encounter it in other people.

RTB.INK - I agree that we should not treat our children as little adults. That is why I have a problem with the book. As an adult I can see the point the adult rabbit is trying to make despite the tact it uses. I'm not sure that distinction is one my children can see. I fear that this story encourages the kind of "my dad can beat up your dad" exchange instead of modeling other ways of interacting with people.

Would it have taken that much for the adult rabbit to come up with other creative measures of describing its love for the child? That's what I want my children to do.

Ragweed said...


I am with RTB here. One thing I have learned from my partner - a child therapist with 20+ years experience with child development - is that we really need to look at childhood from the perspective of the child, and comprehend how they developmentally comprehend a story like this.

And I think this is a story where the message that young kids get is that daddy loves them unconditionally, and that parental love is infinite. Children around 3-5 start to really understand that their parents are separate people, and start comprehending the possibility that parents might not always be there for them. Its when they start testing limits in a different way - think of the 4-year old experiments with rude words, saying "I hate you", etc. which is partly about testing to see if our love (and limits) are conditional.

So I think this book really speaks to that developmental stage. Seeing how my children (and my partner notes, many other children she works with) respond to it, I think young kids see the love, not the competition.

I would add that the father in the book is quite gentle about it. It really doesn't come across as "oh yea, well my love". He affirms his childs love, and offers even more.

Another book like this is The Runaway Bunny. For small kids it is a reaffirmation that parents and parental love will always be there, no matter what they do. For a teenager, its their worst nightmare.


bigWOWO said...


J Chapman and rtb posted ahead of me, and they posted more or less exactly what I was going to say! I see where you're coming from, but the fact is that small kids interpret things differently. As for modeling behavior, my son likes to play the "one up" game a lot with me too, but it's really all in fun, and he usually ends up laughing at whatever gets said. Kids who are younger than 4 or 5 often don't even have a conception of what it means to win or lose.

In the graphic novel Barefoot Gen, there is a scene where a father and son play sumo in the family room, and the father pushes the son out of their circle. The son is laughing and saying, "Otousan, you're just too heavy." I've seen this same thing go down in Japan, and it's always fun. There are no egos involved because kids that age are too young to think in terms of whether they're winning or losing; they just know that they're having fun with their parents.

Kids at that age hardly know that they and their parents are two separate entities. They're only beginning to voice their own opinions, and the most important thing for them, especially since they are so small, is that their parents protect them. They haven't yet fully individuated. As far as they know, their parents make the rules and control their world, and they just live in it.

It's the same thing with the two rabbits. If the child rabbit is the equivalent of a human 4 year old, he probably has no concept of winning or losing or of one-uppance. Sure, when he's a teenage rabbit, his methods of interaction should probably change, but up until that point, I think we parents can safely teach kids at their own level of understanding. said...

Hi Jeff

Glad to have this conversation. Too many dads are flying solo, and getting to listen in to gives and takes like this can be very helpful. There are two things here that I think are getting lost in the detail of this book. But first ...

I showed your post to my girls, 15 and 12. What I got was age appropriate behavior. The comments started in part "... he thought way to much about this ... I would have been disappointed if my Dad couldn't have shot better them me ..". I've edited out the teenage and tweenage-isms that fill my world. I got to watch the interaction of the two as they lost interest in this totally, as they bossed, bullied, copied, whined at and competed with each other. They got some of their chores done so I'm ahead there.

The lesson: they still don't get what is going on here. Still to young. I'm good with it.

First thing I think is getting lost is competitiveness. How do we feel about it? How do we deal with it in our lives? How do we deal with it in our children? The Discovery/TLC show American Chopper largely deals with the unhealthy competition between Paul Sr. and Paul Jr Teutul. How it damaged their lives.

The second is an, at least IMHO, implied "tabula rasa" in how we, in the US, view our children. As an adult with ADHD and language disabilities, raising a child with ADD and language disabilities, I am very aware of how much of my life is defined by things outside of, and in conflict with, what was wanted and expected from me. Not only could my parents and teachers not control me, I couldn't control me.

Thanks to J Chapman and BigWOWO for the support. I was wondering how to say what you guys said, then you said it, and I got to realize what it was that I was trying to think of how to say.

Ragweed said...

Another thought - it isn't just the age of the reader, but the age of the child in the story. It is appropriate to affirm to a young child that you will always love them, and that your love for them is bigger than anything else (which I think is really what the story is about, not one-upmanship). But an older child has usually already figured out what their parental love means - they tend to measure stated intentions of parental love against the love they know we express, and they usually have already sussed out some of our limitations (especially at that 8-10 period when they realize that their parents can be wrong, and often are). A parent who responded to a 12-year old in this way would be a jerk.

Likewise, the mother in the Runaway Bunny would be somewhat creepy and controlling if addressing a teen (not that we wouldn't go anywhere and do anything to find a kid who ran away, but it would be in a different spirit, hopefully).


Jeff said...

RTB, John, et al,

Thanks so much for the thoughtful interrogations of my post and subsequent comments. It's been fun going back and forth over this.

And so to continue...I understand the point you are making regarding the messages a child immediately takes away from reading the book. It is a largely simple theme about the immensity of a parent's love for a child. And, I agree with you that we should not expect kids to be that aware of the complexity of the interactions going on. They see that the adult rabbit loves the little rabbit and that love makes the little rabbit feel secure and happy. I am fine with all of that.

However, one of the things I have become very aware of as a parent is how many subtle and subconscious lessons my children learn from the world around them. Much of these lessons are structural in nature in that no one teaches them and they do not consciously decide to learn them. Instead, they are patterns that get repeated over and over around them to the point where these behaviors seem natural. I can recount several instances where my children have done something without thinking and I have wondered where they learned it only to realize later that it was something I do on a regular basis. They did not make a conscious choice to do these things. The action felt natural, instinctual even, because it was what had been happening around them all the time.

It is this understanding of the world that led to my critique of "Guess How Much I Love You." I believe - and it is a belief in the ontological/religious sense - that young kids sponge up so much more than they can immediately use or comprehend, but that many of their later choices eventually draw upon these things. My best argument for this belief is the fact that we are encouraged to read to our children long before they can understand exactly what we are saying. In this way we are "priming the pump" for our children's own ability to learn and use words. Why would their behaviors operate any differently?

Which then brings me to the question of the back and forth exchange of the book, our interpretations of it, and whether we find it enjoyable, appropriate, irritating, etc. For bigWOWO, the back and forth is all in fun and I see how it can be with young children. In my life, however, I have found that I regularly encounter a personality-type I call the 'topper.' This person must always have the last word and must always trump somebody's funny/interesting/wild story with their own. I find that I can handle this person in small doses, but they are almost unbearable over long periods of time.

For me, the adult rabbit in "Guess How Much I Love You" is exhibiting classic 'topper' behavior. In the context of the book this behavior is relatively harmless, but in other situations it is not. This is what I try to point out to my children when we read this book (and why I wrote this post). While I don't expect them to fully understand what I'm saying, I hope that by talking with them about my interpretation of this behavior, it will not become naturalized or normalized for them as something good and right. said...

HI Jeff

Let me twist on of your statements a little -- all for the sake of argument and understanding.

You said:

I can recount several instances where my children have done something without thinking and I have wondered where they learned it only to realize later that it was something I do on a regular basis. They did not make a conscious choice to do these things. The action felt natural, instinctual even, because it was what had been happening around them all the time.

How do you know this was a learned behavior and not exactly what you said it seemed like, an instinct. If you react to stimuli a set way, and your children do too, how do we ascertain if your children inherited that behavior, or learned it. You statement assumes that your children's behaviors are learned.

All playing devil's advocate aside, Jeff's comment supports on of my tenets of parenting: you can't teach your children, all you can do is live the life you would want your children to live, and hope they pick it up along the way. The most honest mirror you will ever have is your children, and by the time you can see what is in your mirror, it is too late to do anything about it. This means you have to behave as if you believed certain things-- even if they conflict with your own weaknesses. You will find that walking the walk is much harder then talking the talk. And, that may of our most cherished beliefs don't work so well in practice.

Ragweed said...

This is an interesting discussion, with a lot too it.

I get the point Jeff makes about the "topper". I have met that personality as well (actually, one of my parents was one). However, I still think the father in this story is doing something different. Its a subtle difference though, and sometimes two interactions can look a lot alike, and be totally different because of the underlying emotional messages.

One of the most interesting things that I read in the whole Amu Chua debacle was a comment that someone made over at, about how he was raised in a family that shared many of the "Tiger Mom" values, but he always knew that his parents loved him and that their love was not conditional on their success. However, many of his colleagues and classmates had a similar upbringing, and they did feel that their parents love was conditional on performance. On the surface, the two different relationships look much alike, but the emotional relationship involved is very different.

One of the enduring challenges of loving relationships is that so much of it is so intangible. The same overt behavior can have completely different impacts depending on a lot of subtle emotional messages that we are often not even entirely aware that we are sending.

(It's also why I am somewhat skeptical of the attachment-parenting lifestyle - co-sleeping can be great, if it works for you, but does nothing for attachment without the underlying emotional attunement. I've known parents who were pretty checked out in the family bed. But that is another story, to be told another day.)

So I still hold that the father in this story is acting in a very loving, and not competitive, way. It could very easily be a competitive "topper" story, and in the hands of a different writer it might be. The difference is subtle, and largely conveyed in the father's gentle and affirming manner, but I think it is there, and it is real.


Christine S said...

I've never really liked this book and can't recall either of my kids letting me get all the way through it. Making a competition out of how much you love someone is just creepy. said...

I'm endlessly amazed by the ability of art to act as a mirror. I forget who it was, but a rock star admitted that the lyrics to several of his songs were nonsense, they just sounded right and fit the metric scheme he wanted. Fans have come up to him time and again to say how much meaning there was in these songs and how they changed their lives. He just says thank you. What would you say?

jack said...

I never really thought about that book the way you laid it out. I guess I see your point but the first time I read it to my son I couldn't get through it because I kept choking up thinking about the expanse of the love and the interaction between the father and son in the story. The kid never seems bothered by it either, just filled with wonder at the abilities he will eventually grow into. We don't read it too often these days but I think it's mostly because it got lost in the shuffle of books.

Also, rtb's comment about comparing dads reminded me of a story my wife told me several months ago. My son was playing with an older kid who can be a bit of a jerk who said "My dad has TWO ladders." Without skipping a beat, my son said "But MY dad has ONE ladder!" And that was the end of the conversation as far as my son was concerned.

Anonymous said...

That! Plus, too many words on each page and the pictures are boring. Also, what the hell is a "nutbrown hare" anyway?!?!?

Linda said...

"Guess how much I love you" is one of my favorites and one of the favorite books of many of the students I have taught and shared this book with (kids in the 4-8 years range).
Never ever were they disturbed by the hare "showing of" because that is not their perspective of the book. They are usually intrigued by the big-bigger-biggest ideas and eager to find ways to express their love for their parents (or friends and sometimes even their teacher) in a bigger way than the father in the story. I use it almost as a story to open up philosophical discussions with young children.
My son came up with "3 times around the stars and back" and really is a game, but because what the children do understand is that you can not measure love. And wasn't that the whole point of the story???

Anne said...

I'm with you on this. I feel the same way about Runaway Bunny, which my mom gave to me.

ACM said...

My mind understands this objection, but my gut just doesn't -- somewhere there's something missing in the comparison, even if it seems like it should be a good parallel. I don't think that the big rabbit is "one-upping" the little rabbit, or that it matters, because, I dunno, (a) how wonderful that we're both striving to be more *loving*! (not able, not impressive, etc.), and (b) isn't there reassurance in the idea that a parent loves a child even more than that child can imagine? (isn't that who should be the basis of the security for the other? isn't that what all the "I love you even when you're naughty" books are trying to convey too?), and (c) in the end, the big rabbit lets the very last statement go (only adding his final "one-up" in a whisper, after the bunny is asleep, as if chanting to himself how much he treasures his little charge). I don't see the rabbit as an asshole, even though I see the basketball father as one, and I genuinely think that's not a failing on my part. I think there's something there that's visceral -- I guess it either resonates with you or it doesn't.

I' also wonder whether it resonates with kids just fine, even when we have our own concerns, because (1) everyone around them in fact *is* better at everything than they are, and they're always working to narrow the gap or just to improve their own abilities, and (2) the youngest tots aren't really into the competitive mindset that the asshole basketball image requires. I dunno -- do you think that if you hadn't presented this book as needing to be unpacked, your children would have objected to it? Mine always gets all huggy when we're reading it...

bklynma437 said...


First of all, I just discovered Daddy Dialectic today, and I LOVE it. Thank you for your thoughtful writing on thoughtful fathering.

That said, I have to agree with the bulk of the commenters here that your interpretation of Guess How Much is rather skewed. I didn't even see the father in your basketball scenario as an asshole, because -- crucially -- the little girl doesn't, and wouldn't.

I see parenting as largely about modeling skills and behaviors in an aspirational mode. A small child does not see a parent's demonstration of abilities they do not yet possess as gloating or cruel. This father is showing his daughter what she too will one day be capable of in the sphere she is exploring. And it's not as if he's intimidating her with gratuitous displays of mastery of unrelated skills (she dribbles a basketball, he recites Chaucer in Middle English). He lets her lead the way. And her reaction is fascination and awe, not pique. When she says "I wish I could do that," why would we read that as a bad thing? Yes, she does wish she could do that, and that wish -- inspired by her father's demonstration of his skills -- will drive her to build on her own budding skills, not discourage her from a futile pursuit.

The key is that a parent-child relationship is not a relationship of peers. This scenario would look like "topping" if it involved two adults. But it doesn't. It just doesn't.

So, to me, your story doesn't really illustrate your argument, setting aside the fact that it is not even about the same thing. Describing the extent of one's love and playing basketball are fundamentally different activities. In the original story, it strikes me as even less available to the 'asshole' reading.

Sorry to ramble, especially as I'm mainly repeating (less cogently) what has already been said by others. Just wanted to add my perspective.

And again, I am extremely appreciative and grateful for your raising these kinds of questions. There is a lot of really bad children's literature out there, reinforcing a lot of distasteful and destructive strains of our culture (princess-worship, for example). It's incredibly important for us parents to have our critical skills engaged in selecting what we feed our children's minds. Guess How Much is not one of the bad ones.