A recent survey conducted by the people who are developing "Raising of America," a video series on child well-being, asked “Why do children struggle?” The most frequent response was “Parents don’t know how to parent” followed closely by “Children don’t work hard enough.” In our society, which values the autonomy of the individual, these responses are predictable because they spring from the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative that health and prosperity are due mostly to the choices that individuals make. These responses parallel what I’m hearing as I travel the state asking “What needs to be done to create a healthier Minnesota?” The most common responses I get are “Parents need to learn how to parent” and “People just need to be responsible for the choices that they make.”
That focus on individual responsibility was on my mind as I traveled to address a collaborative of state health departments addressing infant mortality. My presentation was on July 28, the birthday of Beatrix Potter (author of "Peter Rabbit"), which inspired me to look at how children’s poems, stories, and fairy tales help shape our view of life.
Starting with "Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes" (Humpty Dumpty, Little Boy Blue, Three Little Kittens, Little Bo Peep, The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe) the message is clear; the choices one makes have consequences – usually negative consequences from bad choices. If Humpty, that silly old egg, hadn't been on the wall in the first place the king's horses and men wouldn't have had to go to all that trouble.
"Aesop’s Fables" (Town Mouse and City Mouse, Hare & Tortoise, Ant and Grasshopper) reinforce that narrative. The fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Andersen, and others (Hansel and Gretel, The Little Mermaid, The Red Shoes, The Three Little Pigs, Santa Claus) offer a similar message but often expand the narrative to show how individual action can conquer life’s challenges. The sensible pig who built his house of bricks saved the day for his foolish friends who chose to make their domiciles from cheaper but unsafe building materials.
Given the pervasive message of individual responsibility in children’s literature, it’s not surprising why that narrative persists as the dominant one in our society.
One of the approaches necessary to advance health equity is to expand the understanding about what creates health. That means changing the narrative that health is not just about medical care and personal choices but also about the physical, social, and economic environment in which people live, work, and play. With that in mind, I tried in my speech to change the narrative of a children’s story to see how it might help change the narrative about what creates health. In honor of Beatrix Potter, I used "Peter Rabbit."
My speech, like the story, started with: Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree. One morning old Mrs. Rabbit said, "I'm going to the bakery to get some brown bread. You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor." Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, were good little bunnies... but Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight to Mr. McGregor's garden and squeezed under the gate!
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that naughty Peter, despite the admonitions of his caring mother, made a bad choice by going into Mr. McGregor’s garden. His choice nearly cost him his life. The moral of the story is obvious, bad choices may have life-threatening consequences.
But what would the moral be if the context of the story was known? You see, the Rabbits’ home under the root of the fir tree was not a great place to live. It was near a polluted creek that often flooded and inundated the Rabbits' house. The sandy soil in the neighborhood was not conducive to growing anything but weeds so food was scarce. Messrs. Fox, Eagle, and Badger roamed the sandbank and bullied the neighborhood. The Rabbits lived in fear of them.
Across the lane was Mr. McGregor’s Garden. It had great soil and moisture so a multitude of fruits and vegetables grew in abundance. Many outsiders envied the garden but it had an almost impermeable fence which kept out undesirables making it a safe and secure place for those who lived there. The garden had been in the McGregor family for generations so Mr. and Mrs. McGregor had the systems in place to make sure it continued to be a place that met their needs. They countenanced no disruptions.
Driven by hunger and the desperate need to feed his growing family, Mr. Rabbit had managed to get into the garden. But, the systems put in place by the McGregors quickly identified his intrusion and his capture was inevitable. Within hours he was served up in a crust to satisfy the appetites of the McGregors.
Peter knew that story well. His mother mentioned it almost every day. Peter missed his father but also felt some of the same pressures that motivated his dad. He didn’t see that he had many choices if he was going to help his mother and sisters. Staying in the neighborhood meant fighting with the Fox, Eagle, and Badger over the meager resources available there. He didn’t like those odds. Brown bread from the bakery wouldn’t sustain him or his family for very long so he decided going into Mr. McGregor’s garden was the best option he had.
You know the rest of the story – at least up to the point when Peter is put to bed by his mother. Who knows what happens after that? I’d like a “happily ever after” ending but I’m not optimistic about the ultimate end of the story. Unless there is an improvement in the conditions in which the Rabbit family lives, I don’t see Peter or his well-behaved sisters doing well regardless of the choices they make.
I’m not sure if the audience at the infant mortality conference made the connection between my story and what needs to be done to improve the lives of infants and their families. I hope they did. One thing for certain is that remembering the impact of the stories I read to my children years ago and my brief in-flight analysis of children’s literature convinced me of the truth of Plato’s statement that, “Those who tell the stories rule society.”
Now, go tell or read a story to your children, grandchildren, neighborhood children, or those who need more stories in their lives. But, be sure you include the context and the conditions in which the story characters live so that you and the children, understand that the community and its physical, social, and economic conditions are important in shaping the choices they make and determining what ultimately happens to them.