the green fields beyond

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Location: Charles City, Virginia, United States

Friday, March 09, 2007

Berenstain Bears response paper

John Keegan begins his now-classic work on human reactions to combat, The Face of Battle, with the disclaimer “I have never been in a battle.” I need to give my equivalent of that at the start: I have never raised a child; my wife and I, as yet, have none. So as I offer a brief critique on a book dealing with parenting, I’m very mindful that most of my knowledge of kids comes from babysitting, tutoring, working with the church youth group, or from books and classes. There is MUCH I don’t know.
Having said that, I’m posting a brief reaction paper, from one of my Counseling classes, on a popular children’s book, The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies (you can read excerpts from the book using the Search Inside feature here). 260 million copies of Berenstain Bears books have been sold since they first appeared, making them perhaps the best-selling children’s series in history. The interaction is much briefer than I’d like (we were under a word limit), and it proved to be more challenging than I’d expected: how do I appreciate the Berenstains’ insights and challenge their blind spots, while not offering simplistic replacements? I’m not completely satisfied with how it turned out, so I really do welcome your comments, criticisms, or suggestions! Here goes...
I was surprised to realize that TBBGTG is aimed not only at kids but also at their parents. Of course the format suggests an audience of children, but the epigraph on the title page reads, “when a cub’s behavior takes a turn for the worst, it’s hard for parents to know what to do first,” which strongly implies that the authors want to educate parents, too. “We know that raising children is hard,” they are saying, “but we think we’ve discovered what to do first.”

As a book for families, TBBGTG connects with everyday concerns and rings true with everyday experience. It deals with mundane struggles of life: how do you provide for and delight your children without “spoiling” them? The Berenstains paint an accurate picture of greedy kids throwing tantrums, and of parents’ rising frustration. Anyone who has tried to safely guide a demanding child through a supermarket will identify with Mama’s exasperation and Papa’s helpless embarrassment (pp. 11-12), and the cubs’ tantrums are all too realistic. The book’s illustrations help, too: we see the passersby staring indignantly at the noisy scene the cubs are making, and we know that Mama and Papa feel the burn of every disapproving glance.

What causes the gimmies? The Berenstains’ narration suggests several contributing factors: overindulgent parenting (page 2), a consumeristic society that bombards the cubs with advertising (page 3), even genetics (pages 21-22 reveal that Papa had the same gimmie-habit when he was young). All these explanations accurately diagnose real-world problems, but the book stays at this shallow, external level and never asks why the cubs are so susceptible to these influences. Why do they get “that old gimmie gleam in their eyes”? What’s going on in their hearts and minds? Are they to blame at all for their behavior? The Berenstains don’t try to address these questions; they stay at a pragmatic level.

How can the gimmies be solved? Papa first tries a moralistic lecture: the cubs should appreciate what they have. They shouldn’t want more because life won’t give them all they want, and they’ll be dissatisfied. Of course this airy, abstract advice doesn’t stick with the cubs for long, and soon they are behaving greedily once more. Now that moral exhortation has failed, Papa gets advice from his parents and tries their more pragmatic approach: the cubs can each pick out one, and only one, item to get each time they go to the store, and if they throw tantrums they’ll get nothing. This plan works beautifully, and soon the cubs are even casting superior looks and self-righteous platitudes at other families whose children have the gimmies.

While it certainly makes trips to the store calmer and less embarrassing, this approach to curbing the cubs’ acquisitiveness leaves much to be desired. It appeals solely to their greed: if they’re well-behaved, they get a treat every time they go to the store, while bad behavior means no treats. They are being bought off. If we press the logic of this approach, it seems to imply either that the cubs are annoyances to be bribed into silence, or that their greed is a legitimate “given” and can only be channeled, not challenged. This is a bleak and ugly view of children. The proposed solution makes the family slightly more functional, for sure, but it’s only a quick-fix or Band-Aid. (Not to mention the obvious practical flaw: what happens when the cubs grow older, and “treats” become more expensive things like convertibles or trips to Hawaii?)

I believe there’s a better way—addressing the cubs not as obstacles or embarrassments but as young “people” who, just like their parents, need to change at the level of the heart. This approach will take a bit longer than the Berenstains’—there are no quick fixes—but I believe it will produce deeper and more lasting change. The parents know, already, that this greed isn’t good for cubs or for the grown-ups the cubs will become (p. 6). So first, Mama and Papa should check their own attitudes and actions: are the parents behaving greedily at home, or are they displaying self-control? (The Berenstains are right that the cubs are influenced by what they see in their parents.) Are Mama & Papa showing love to their kids in a variety of ways, so that the kids don’t only think of love in financial terms? The Berenstains only address the children’s problems, leaving unaddressed Papa’s warning signs: outbursts of rage, empty threats, inconsistent parenting. His unbalanced craving for control and tranquility is just as grave a problem as the cubs’ craving for treats.
Secondly, the parents need to challenge their children’s greed—not in a “you can’t always get what you want” way, but in a “let me help you see what’s going on” way! They need to explain that being selfish is wrong: it’s wrong to want everyone to serve your every wish, and to bully your parents into buying things for you. Specifically, it’s wrong because there is a God who is generous and giving towards us, and wants us to be the same towards others.
But this shouldn’t turn into a condemnatory lecture. I hope that Mama and Papa, all through the cubs’ lives, have been telling them wonderful true stories about Jesus. Jesus could have stayed with his Father in heaven, where he had everything. But he came to earth because we needed to be rescued from all our greedy, hurtful attitudes and actions. He even gave up his life to save us. And now he lives again, full of God’s power and ready to change us, slowly but surely, into unselfish “cubs”! So faith in Jesus is not just a “religious” compartment in life. It’s inseparable from grocery-store tantrums and the way that those tantrums reveal our hearts.
Along with patient, long-term instruction in faith and its implications, Mama and Papa could teach the kids about generosity and responsibility. What about having them save their pennies until they had enough to buy something they wanted? Or broadening their horizons by bringing them along to volunteer at a shelter for cubs who have nothing? And of course, buying them the occasional gumball or coloring book is fine, if the parents aren’t blackmailed into it.
Fighting our gimmies is a lifelong struggle, with no easy answers. But the process will never begin if we only feed our greed.

4 Comments:

said...

Interesting thoughts, Justin. I've always read the books as directed as much toward parents as the children, and assumed that adults engaged with the contents in the same way that I did--they are the start of a series of thoughts, and creat the desire to be introspective.

Just curious--are the Berenstains Christian?

2:49 PM  
said...

Good point, E. Yes, i assume that adults are meant to interact with the books and are supposed to use them as "discussion-starters" with their own children, not as a sort of "Last Word on the Subject." Even so, the Berenstains certainly have an opinion, and they push the "discussion" in a particular direction.
As to your question: the Berenstains themselves (stan has died; I think Jan is still with us) seem to have been religious people. Their writings hint at this: Stan wrote a book for adults called "How to Tell Your Kids about God without actually scaring them out of their wits." The Berenstain Bears series includes "The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question," in which the parents answer some of the cubs' big "God questions" by taking them to a Church (the little chapel in the woods) which the grandparents faithfully attend but which the parents haven't taken the kids to much, up to this point. I have heard one unconfirmed report that Stan and Jan were members of a Methodist church.
You've seen that my paper gives explicitly "Christian" child-rearing suggestions, along with more widely applicable ones ("have them save their pennies," etc). I'm still wrestling with the question (thoughts, suggestions, anyone?) of how explicitly "Christian" one can be in the public square. My wife, as a social worker, runs up against similar dilemmas on a daily basis.
It's a learning process, for sure!

3:20 PM  
said...

Hmmm. There's a balance concerning sharing your faith in the public sphere?

Just kidding. But certainly something worth thinking about, you are right.

As for your comment, I will be teaching in Vandyland as I continue working towards my goal of over-education.

5:13 PM  
said...

Your last question is one facing the VeggieTales franchise as it has moved onto network Saturday morning television.

As to Christian parenting, I think it is key to teach children as early as possible about sin and the reign of sin in the (unregenerate) heart. This gives a proper theological basis for teaching about heart motives and helps save our childrearing from mere baptized behavior modification.

Much more difficult and essential though, as you pointed out, is the rooting out in our own lives of the sin that we are going after in our children's lives. Here also Karyn and I found that we needed to live a life of repentance before our children. When Mommy or Daddy blew it and exhibited the gimmies ourselves, and we knew that our daughters had witnessed our sinful display, we learned that we needed to repent not only to God and each other, but before our children as well. Now that they are grown, it is this example that they most remember.

8:30 PM  

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