Recently, my daughter needed to cull her books, because, at five years old, she is a very good reader and has long outgrown many of the board books and younger story books that cluttered her bookshelves. So together, we sat down and went through them, using it as a wonderful opportunity to teach about giving to others because not everyone is as fortunate as we are to have a small home library of their own, and that some other child might really love getting her board book versions of Jane Eyre and Dracula or the 48 point font version of Pixar’s Brave. She had long since mastered those. Then we came across a book that she hadn’t read in ages, but could technically have kept but decided she wanted to get a new book instead, so she opted to part with it in return for a new one. It was The Poky Little Puppy. Before it went into the pile for Goodwill, she wanted to read it again one last time because she loves puppies. Fair enough. We settled onto the couch for a reading.
I remembered then why I never read that book to her.
Here is a curious little puppy, full of adventure and wanting to explore his world. See the puppy go wandering! See the puppy learning new things! …See the puppy get punished for his curiosity!
Wait, what the fuck?
This beloved children’s story completely undercuts everything I value as a parent. The puppy is not poky, with its implication of laziness and indolence prevalent throughout the story. He simply does not follow the crowd of boisterous other puppies. He goes his own way – willingly, unashamedly, and unafraid – and had, we presume, his own adventures apart from the communally accepted activities of his siblings. Or maybe he really is a lazy little shit and went off to take a nap away from his siblings because they are fucking beasts and suck the life out of everyone around them. But he made an independent choice, so good for him. Maybe he’s an introvert and just desperately needs some Alone Time. We introverts have been misunderstood forever.
The point is, the Poky Little Puppy displays an adventuresome and enterprising spirit by going off on his own, and get smacked down by his mother and shunned by his siblings for it. Ok, sure, he stole the custard pie and the chocolate pudding because he came home later than the others, so that wasn’t a good message, either. He was a little rat bastard for that, no doubt about it. Children’s books from the 1940s were full of jerks. However, that kind of behavior can be corrected, and for now it can be excused since he IS just a puppy and doesn’t know any better. I want to say there is a term for teaching children how to act, but I can’t quite remember… oh, yes. I remember. It’s called parenting. Stealing the desserts was wrong. But he can be taught better manners.
Far more upsetting, as a modern parent, is the notion that the Poky Little Puppy’s mother not only wasn’t proud of him for showing that he wants to break away from the pack and follow his own path, she actually punished him for it. I have a strong-willed, independent, occasionally defiant child. It can be incredibly challenging and frustrating to have a child like that. But the thought of punishing her for being who she is, for being bright and curious, is abhorrent. The puppy returns home safely, which should be the mother’s paramount concern but is never even mentioned, and looks for his mother and siblings. I make the assumption that he wants to tell them all about his grand adventure. He finds no one, so he feeds himself, and since he’s just a puppy, he does it wrong – here is where he needs correction – and puts himself to bed. In the final adventure, he gets locked out, has to struggle back into the safety of his house, is shunned by his mother and siblings, and is sent to bed with no food. In my world, that’s called emotional and physical abuse. Why was this considered an example of good parenting in the ‘40s? I truly do not understand.
Why, too, is the Poky Little Puppy seen as a bad puppy for not being mindlessly obedient? If my daughter suddenly became mindlessly obedient, I would assume she’d suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury, or been replaced by a changeling or a pod person or something…unnatural. “Obedient” is not her default setting and “mindless” has never once applied to her. While I do try to make her mind, at least for things that could be potentially harmful to her or are super annoying or rude (yay for learning the social contract!), for the most part, I reckon she will figure a lot of it out as she grows. I don’t want her to be a mindless drone. That’s for the Borg. I want her to be curious and active and want to explore things. I want her to learn how to think, not what to think. I fail to see how enforcing unthinking obedience achieves this. I do not understand why any mother would want her children to suffer conformity, tedium, and mediocrity, teaching that a lack of curiosity and following rules is always better.
I am grateful to authors like Dr. Seuss, whose stories Oh, The Thinks You Can Think! and Oh, The Places You’ll Go! were among my daughter’s first books and which encourage thinking and traveling and exploring. I am grateful to Neil Gaiman for his poem “Instructions,” which was a gift at my baby shower and which is a beloved favorite in my household (How else would we know what to do if we ever got stuck in a fairy tale if it weren’t for his, well, instructions?), and his The Dangerous Alphabet, which shows two siblings evading their father and having grand, dangerous adventures in an underworld version of a city, learning and exploring and coming back home safe and sound to an obviously proud and indulgent father. You know, the anti-The Poky Little Puppy. There are so many interesting, exciting, meaningful books for children which have good lessons and help teach them how to think, be independent, and encourage curiosity. I was definitely happy to see The Poky Little Puppy go in the Goodwill pile. It certainly won’t be missed in my house. We have Neil Gaiman and Dr. Seuss and other better books we can read.