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Reading Between the Childish Lines

I read a lot as a general rule. In fact, I prioritize reading as a pastime above basically all else. I often keep non-reading apps to a minimum on my phone, now able to hide those apps in the App Library on iOS. Part of being a dad though is reading to my kids and I read a lot within that context as well.

When we had our first child, we made a pact of sorts to always read at bedtime. We read, on average, five books every night and it varies what "five" means. Board books, vocabulary builders, first readers, chapters from a novel, passages from an appropriately-suited adult book, or any number of things in between. I am often struck, nonetheless, by the depth of children's books; I am sure there is a College-level course out there somewhere that discusses children's literature and the various interpretations of selected texts.

Sometimes, the book comes right out and hits me with wisdom. For other reasons, vintage Berenstain Bears books are a favorite in our house, but they are one such series with depth beyond an initial reading. One from the early 80s I read to the kids recently was "The Berenstain Bears and the In-Crowd". The basis of the story is that there is a new cub in town who is popular due to her "sharp" clothes and "ten-speed bike"; the new cub makes fun of Sister Bear without any provocation. The story is all about being yourself, even in the face of adversity; being proud of who you are because no matter what other people say or do to make you feel small, you have strengths.

One passage, though, smacked me across the face with some political insight. Remember, it's a kid's book. It reads:

"Well," said Mama thoughtfully, "sometimes there are cubs, even grownups, who behave that way. They show off for the crowd by picking on someone who has a certain kind of name or wears a certain kind of clothes. They try to build themselves up by putting others down. That's how in-crowds get started."

This passage struck me in conjunction with other readings I have done with the kids as insightful, deeper than the passage itself can relay. I paused after reading this and launched into a discussion with the kids about the logic of Mama's thinking.

Mama doesn't know the new cub, has never met her before, but understands that there are those in the world who decide their well-being is more important than that of others. Sometimes we refer to this behavior as bullying (that is broached as physical bullying in a different Berenstain Bears book); other times we refer to it as bad manners (again, that is dealt with as table manners and decency in another book); yet other times, we call it prejudice or racism (unsurprisingly, this topic is not covered overtly in any of their books that I have found, except maybe tangentially in "New Neighbors", where Pandas move in next-door and Papa is put in his place for his negative attitude/suspicions). The Berenstain Bears, however, are white and these contexts come from a place of privilege, no matter the message. I read and discuss the stories to my kids with that privilege in mind.

The fact that society builds some up while forcing others down is not a new phenomenon nor a particularly unique one, but it is an important message that, as a parent, I take it as my duty to broach with my children, no matter their age. They understand, even if at a simplistic level that they have power over their words, their actions, and the effect that both have on others.

Seeing, surfacing, and strengthening the power that others have is a skill, a muscle that needs to be exercised, and one that requires some amount of sacrifice along the way. That skill is both hard to exercise in a pandemic and terribly important during a political season rife with in-crowds, power dynamics, and racism. The general unwillingness to sacrifice anything in these times for the sake of others is made most obvious in the spread of a virus or dedication to an ideology that is based on power dynamics that require the putting down of anyone, let alone entire groups of people.

The betterment of all people comes with sacrifices from those with means and privilege; one person's success shouldn't come at the cost of another person's well-being; and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

These messages are ones that all adults should know and yet Sister's reaction to the in-crowd behavior is still considered countercultural, as are most vintage Berenstain Bear books. Instead of trying to join the in-crowd, she doubles down on what makes her unique and shows all the other cubs that she is worthy of praise for her double-dutch skills. Remember, it is still a kid's book. But the lesson is still one that feels underserved in our world today and bears repeating.