Sharing a World

My sons absolutely adore each other. It is becoming a real problem.

Seriously.

Imagine, if you will, a typical morning:

  • 0500 hours – Beta awakens (age: 20 months). Not yet ready to start the day, we contain him in our room where our little iPad prodigy serves as a biological snooze button thanks to immersive apps from Nosy Crow and PBS Kids.
  • 0540 – Verbal coin toss (winner gets to fetch coffee, loser gets to dress first). Objective: establish one functional parental unit prior to Alpha coming online.
  • 0545 – Alpha comes online (age: 5 years). Begins infiltration of sleeping quarters. Parent on duty relatively defenseless. Orders to stand down go largely unheeded.
  • 0550 – Brotherly affection commences. Unsolicited hugging interrupts iPad engagement. Junior sibling responds to disproportionate arms with evasive maneuvers and warning sirens. Senior sibling sulks. Neighbors awaken.
  • 0555 – Shower cut short. Joint show of force from parental units needed to enforce a DMZ defined by a huggy pillow.
  • 0600 – All you need is love. Unilateral peace talks commence. Beta violates accord to pounce affectionately on Alpha. U.N. observers use humanitarian food aid to begin breakfast and diaper change cycles to restore calm.

Gearing myself up to manage sibling rivalry, I was largely unprepared for the opposite challenge: two boys who are so physically affectionate, they annoy each other. It is a different twist on “learning to share.” Sharing isn’t sharing until both people want to. Do not take a hug until it has been offered. “Helping out” can also be a way of “taking over.” Doing something “for” is not the same as doing something “with” your little brother.

Often my wife and I focus our efforts on simply getting the two to inhabit the same space. Forget playing together. Nothing is going to entertain both a five- and a two-year old for very long. When one brother decides the other is more fun to play with than Fisher-Price, hugs and kisses become shoves and tears.  This is profoundly upsetting to our oldest son, who just can’t fathom what the problem is.

“I just want to give him a hug,” is a common refrain, after he has been pushed away. “I just want to show him how to do it” he’ll say tearfully, the unwitting king of a mountain of toys annexed from his little brother. It seems that the hardest lesson in the world to learn is that a hug will come in its own time. If he just waits for it, and gives his little brother time, he will almost always be surprised with a big squeeze from behind.

Don’t get me wrong. We want them to play together. We just want them both to recognize they are playing with another person. It is less about learning to share a toy than about learning to share a world.

I look for small ways to help the older realize his brother is not merely a supporting role in his story, but has a story of his own. It’s a lesson I want them to take to heart about  humanity in general.  I have found a few picture books that help my cause.

Good Night Gorilla” is a special favorite of my youngest right now. Peggy Rathmann’s wordless tale of a gorilla freeing the animals in a zoo to stage an uninvited slumber party in Mr. Zookeeper’s bedroom seems custom-made to appeal to little ones struggling to sleep all night in their own bed. The absence of words makes it a highly interactive book, almost an app on paper, that is better explored than read. Our toddler flips the pages himself, making each animal’s sound. Part of the magic comes from Rathmann’s use of small background details that tell simple running stories of their own alongside the main attraction. On each page, a mouse struggles to lay claim to a banana, while a balloon set adrift on page 1 continues to drift about on the edges of the action. Taking these at first to be sight gags for the benefit of the reading parent, I have come to appreciate them as a way to introduce even the youngest reader to the concept of multiple narratives.  Sometimes we read the book to laugh at Gorilla. Sometimes, we just play “where is the balloon?”

It is a technique Rathmann uses in many of her works. In the lesser known but even more slapstick 10 Minutes Till Bedtime,” a family of tourist hamsters gives a child a welcome excuse to drag out the bedtime countdown. Amazingly, each hamster has its own character gag that can be followed independently from one page to the next. But most magical of all is the subtle reveal, about halfway through the book. When the child looks out the door upon the throngs of hamsters lining up in his front yard, silhouetted in the distant background we see the familiar “Good Night, Gorilla” menagerie marching out of the zoo and into Mr. Zookeeper’s house! When the child notices it for the first time, it can be a magical moment. “Rira!” [“Gorilla!”] my son shouts whenever he sees it now.

Not only do both books take place in the same neighborhood, but they take place simultaneously on the same fictional night. It is a highly complex idea planted with the greatest of ease for even pre-reading toddlers to enjoy: main characters in one book are the background in another, and all have their own story to tell.

If you read enough children’s literature by any one author, such playful intertextuality is everywhere. Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Runaway Bunny” visually quotes her immortal “Goodnight Moon,” with interesting metaphysical fallout. A mother bunny assures her baby that there is no place he can hide from her love:

"If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fishman and I will fish for you"

Not only does the image curiously appear as a painting on the wall in her earlier book, but Goodnight Moon’s “great green room” itself appears as the final proof of the mother’s love, essentially making the entirety of “Goodnight Moon” nothing more than the final waking fantasy of the Runaway Bunny as he gently falls asleep.

Even the venerable Doctor Seuss twists his own works in on themselves this way. Last month, when visiting Whoville with the Grinch, did you think to connect it with “Horton Hears A Who“… where the entire town, Mount Crumpit and all, is located on a small speck of dust about to be boiled in Beezelnut Oil?

Worlds within worlds, and lives within lives. What affects one story, affects all others it touches. That is the essential survival truth we could all do well to learn, so where better to introduce it than children’s books? After all “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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