Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: The Berenstain Bears Bother Me

I don't really remember ever liking The Berenstain Bears as a kid. In fact, I would go so far as to say that even as a child I found the books sanctimonious, irritating, and frustratingly mired in gender norms. And, for the record, I probably would have used those words too, because I was a super pretentious child.

The point is, I've never understood The Berenstain Bears. I just don't get it. It feels like the stories and situations are taken from an episode of Leave It to Beaver from the twilight zone. Because somehow, somehow, these stories are even more teeth-numbingly wholesome than that show ever managed to be. And while in recent years I've found a couple of exceptions to this rule, like the one book of theirs I like, Mama's New Job, by and large I really don't like The Berenstain Bears. They don't do anything for me.

Which is why I am utterly baffled by a simple fact: kids freaking love them.

How? Why? No, seriously, why? The Berenstain Bears books are so uptight and dull and predictable and annoying that I have to take a deep breath whenever the munchkin asks me to read one, and yet he seems to think they're great. If I let him, he'd have me reading them all in a loop, all day every day. I'm not kidding. What is it about these books?

For those of you who are blessedly unfamiliar with the series, here's the basic premise to pretty much every book: Brother and Sister Bear have some kind of problem. Mama Bear is distracted taking care of the baby, so Papa Bear seeks to help them with their problem, but only makes it worse and teaches them bad habits in the process. Then Mama Bear comes back and teaches everyone a lesson and fixes everything. That's pretty much it. There are slight variations, but that's the general gist of these stories.

So there are a few basic problems with this formula going forward, character ones that generally bother me. Like, Brother and Sister Bear are pretty horrible children to start with. They're whiny, greedy, impatient, and messy. They almost never do something helpful or good without being nagged by their mother first. In fact, the majority of their stories start because the cubs are doing something bad or harmful of their own volition. Basically, if these were my kids? I would feel like a failure as a parent. They're awful.

And Papa Bear really isn't much better. He's usually right behind the kids, doing the bad thing, and relentlessly insisting that he's fine because he's a grownup. No! No that is a terrible example to set for your children! Papa Bear is about as mature as one of the cubs, and that is just plain bad.

Finally, there's Mama Bear, the righteous, schoolmarm, order-giver. She's the responsible parent, sure, and I like that, but I dislike how they always position Mama as being opposed to fun. It's not even that she's the only one who can keep everyone in line, it's that the books present her as inherently good and rule following, and that everything she does is perfect, so no one else should even try to compete.

The worst bit, though, is how the books always end. See, they always have Mama upholding the moral lesson of the story, but they also refrain from giving the cubs sufficient consequences for their actions in the story. Out of everyone, actually, Papa Bear tends to get the most negative consequences, while the cubs often get off free. In Bedtime Battle, the parents spend all evening trying to get their cubs to go to bed, and by the end of it the kids, who have wanted to stay up all night anyway, are all wound up, while the parents are actually asleep. How does this help teach kids anything? What is the point of this?

In case you can't tell, I really dislike these books.

So why does the munchkin like these books so much? Well, if I had to guess, and I do, I'd say it's precisely because the cubs get into lots of trouble and never really face any consequences for it. Even more, I'd guess that he loves the books because Papa Bear is just as bad as the cubs, and that makes him feel good about his actions. These are books that purport to teach a moral lesson, but always do so by undermining adult authority (except Mama's). The lesson one can most easily learn from these books is that the best way to win any argument is to just wait until the other side has exhausted itself.

I have a problem with this. It's not that I think children should automatically bow down to authority. No, I of all people do not think that. But I do think that it's important for children to be able to determine when an authority figure should be listened to, and it's important that children understand that there will be consequences for their actions.

For example, yesterday afternoon, following a pleasant and peaceful day, the munchkin did something bad and got in trouble. The thing he did was actually pretty simple (he climbed onto the rim of the toilet bowl and was trying to smear his hands all over the mirror), and his punishment was by no means draconian. Because he knows that he's not supposed to climb up on things (even if we had never discussed whether the toilet was included in that), and because he knows that my job is to keep him safe and I take it very seriously, he was informed, matter of factly, that he would not be getting any sweets for the rest of the day. So, no cookies or Halloween candy. Not the end of the world, right?

That didn't stop him from, three hours later, proceeding to wail and sob and scream when his mother agreed with me and wouldn't let him have a cookie. As I was leaving yesterday he actually yelled out that he didn't want me to be his nanny anymore and that he hated me. Now, I am a well-adjusted adult, and I am fully aware that what I did in that situation was correct. He did something he knew was wrong, that I know might hurt him, and he had to face the consequences.

Did it suck having a three year old yelling at me? Of course it did! I'm still human, after all. But here's the important thing: this morning when I came to pick him up for preschool, was the munchkin still distressed about yesterday? Nope. Not even a little bit. Because while he was upset in the moment, but he understands well enough to get that I gave him a consequence because I love him and don't want him to get hurt. Is he ever going to stand on the toilet rim again? Probably not.

I have become in this kids life a trusted authority figure. While he might disagree with my actions in the moment, like yesterday, the munchkin gets that I love him and want him to be safe. So when I tell him not to do something, or when I give him a consequence for breaking the rules, he tends to just take it. He knows I'm doing it for his own good, and so he listens. I've proven that I am worth his respect.

Let's compare this with the actions of the parents in the Berenstain Bears books. In those books, I don't feel like the parents, at least definitely not Papa Bear, ever prove that they are worth the cubs' respect. They are inconsistent, unreliable, and let the cubs go way too far before intervening. 

I get that most of this is so that Stan and Jan Berenstain could get a good story out of the situation, but it still bothers me. Because the munchkin loves these books, and he's getting the impression that rather than being a trusted authority who knows what is good for him, I might be a bumbling grownup that he should always be trying to get one over on.

So no, I do not like the Berenstain Bears books. While I can appreciate the idea behind letting children be the wise ones in their stories, in this case I just can't support it. These books set a bad example, and yet somehow still manage to be overly preachy. I'm not sure how they do it, but I don't like it.

2 comments:

  1. Haha, I "love" how every picture of the book covers show Mama Bear looking mad with her arms crossed. I understand her frustration, but it's also frustrating how she's always portrayed as the stereotypical "nagging, no fun wife and mom". Ugh

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    1. I know! I take very seriously my role making sure that the kids make good responsible choices, but I hate the idea that all I am is a nagging, arms-crossed scowler in the corner. Hmmph.

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