I would first of all like to say that this post was planned before I woke up this morning to the events in Manchester City. I dithered about changing the topic. Something really somber? Something else entirely that’s 100% feel-good? In the end, I went with what I planned originally because it’s actually terrifyingly topical, but in that strange comical way that toddler situations tend to be because they are so distorted and removed from the reality of the outside world. When thinking about my chosen topic this morning through the lens of the news, I wanted to both laugh and cry. The latter is entirely appropriate in the circumstances, the former is necessary to find that mental resilience humans need to move from tragedy and mourning to the task of surviving and living.
With that preamble, I’d like to go back to talking about monkeys. They are rapidly becoming a bane of my existence. There is the famous expression; “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Or maybe a more apt one is “if you’re going to fail, you might as well do it spectacularly.” Well… since I’ve already committed the effort to the “no tail, no monkey” rule, I figure there’s no point in going back, right? Start as you mean to go on, and all that.
It is with this rule in mind that I discovered I have a bone to pick with Mr Richard Scarry. The man is no doubt a brilliant illustrator, but he was clearly not a naturalist. Hawkeye has an on/off relationship with particular books – insisting on reading one over and over and over for a while and then not going near it for weeks. It has therefore been some time since I’ve had to look at the pages of Scarry’s The Rooster Struts with Hawkeye. He’s actually beyond the level of this toddler book now, having more patience for longer narratives than a single two-word sentence per page. But the benefit of the simpler books is that he now likes to “read” them himself. Well, he obviously can’t read yet, but he likes going through them and identifying the pictures which makes them a great distraction. So I had no objection when he grabbed it yesterday morning before letting me hoist him up for a nappy change.
I had no objection, that is, until he got to the monkey page. Because I discovered that they weren’t monkeys. I had never paid that much attention before, you see. But now ever since that last fateful zoo trip, I’m discovering why apes have it so rough in this world. I mean, imagine spending your entire existence being mislabeled and called a monkey when you’re just not a monkey? It’s like the gripe the Irish have whenever Irish celebrities that make it big in the UK or elsewhere are described as “British”. Or when Canadians are often mistakenly assumed to be Americans.
So while Mr Scarry may have done a wonderful illustration of gibbons (or at the very least, some member of the ape family) swinging, he did a terrible job of illustrating monkeys.
I realised, as I was wheeling the stroller to creche afterward, that this was the first time that I, as a parent, had to teach my son not to believe everything he reads. And I laughed to myself because it’s obviously a ridiculous notion to consider educating a two-and-a-half year old on critical thinking about the text of his toddler board books. But then I thought a little more seriously about what this will be like when he’s a little older. At what age does such an education truly start? Primary school? Secondary school? Will it first be social media as he is a child of the 21st century? Or will I encounter material in a school textbook that makes me want to teach him how to respectfully question his teacher rather than accept everything he reads at face value? I mean, there are clearly gradations to this, as with anything in life – it would be perfectly acceptable to teach a primary school child the difference between apes and monkeys and how one can be mistaken for the other in a book, but I wouldn’t discuss the finer points of media bias in Breitbart News with someone that age.
This morning though, as I was hurriedly scrolling through the news of the attack in Manchester City, I was particularly struck by how relevant this question is, now more than ever in the age of 24 hour news and always-on social media. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we still have a few years before we have to tackle the difficult question of how to discuss such events with our son. It will be a while yet before he is going to catch the glimpse of a news report or hear about something at school and ask us questions. This morning, I took a moment to simply revel in this small luxury of time and innocence. As he grows, the question of balancing protecting him versus educating him will get every more pressing for us as parents. Despite the instinctive parental desire to shelter our kids from the big bad world out there, we will, sooner or later, have to learn how to filter world events to him in a way that he can understand and try to make sense of, rather than simply shelter him completely from all such information.
Like all parents, I am sure, I hugged my wee beastie a bit tighter this morning. And then I got on with my day because that’s what people who are not immediately affected by such tragedy have to do every day. But in a tiny, frightening way, I felt like I had crossed an invisible line, a hard-to-spot but ominous milestone of parenting. I had to teach him, for the first time ever, even though he can’t read yet and therefore doesn’t quite know it, that something he’s seeing is not what it says it is in the book. As he grows up and starts to read, I will have to teach him about why a book may be inaccurate, how to spot it, and what to do about it. It’s a terrifying responsibility to contemplate.
I don’t think I will ever look at a Richard Scarry book the same way ever again.