Theodor Geisel, better known by the pen name "Dr. Seuss," remains one of my all-time favorite authors. I may no longer be a child, but I still appreciate Seuss's remarkable capacity for meter, poetry, metaphor and description. My own three-year-old daughter is a Seuss fanatic in her own right. Every night before bed, we usually end up reading at least one Dr. Seuss story.
While I appreciate all of Geisel's work, I find it amusing and slightly upsetting that Dr. Seuss's best-loved stories aren't those that involve powerful morals and life-lessons, but the amusing, sing-song tales of trouble-making and mischief. Dr. Seuss's best-known book, "The Cat in the Hat," tells of latchkey kids who let a trouble-making stranger into their home-- while stories with more solid moral grounds get swept under the rug.
We parents can use Dr. Seuss's less-known works to promote tolerance, empathy and other strong virtues in our children. Here are a few of the life lessons from Dr. Seuss that I've learned, taught, and discussed with my daughter.
1. Question authority-- including your own.(Yertle the Turtle) Many parents cringe at the idea of teaching our kids rebellion, but I believe that it is healthy and virtuous for children to be willing to question those in absolute authorit. My daughter and I discussed Yertle the Turtle at length, giving her a gentle introduction to the world of politics. Some points worth asking your child: "Is it okay to be bossy to those who are weaker than you?" and "What are some ways you can handle it if a stronger person is too bossy?" Discussions of nonviolent resolution, not haphazard are imperative.
2. Live sustainably.(The Lorax) The life lessons taught in The Lorax are far deeper and more complex than simply "Care about the environment." This singular story explores complicated environmental and sociopolitical issues including ecology, extinction, unsustainable economics and corporate greed. In the end, it becomes clear that the best choices-- for the trees, the environment, the animals, the business, and the people-- must be made with sustainability in mind. I think of The Lorax as a kid-friendly introduction to the urgent environmental issues that our children's generation must face.
3. Eschew prejudice. (The Star-Bellied Sneeches) Racism and other forms of superficial prejudice are still a major problem for children today. I've enjoyed sharing the tale of the Star-Bellied Sneeches with my daughter. It has helped her to understand how silly it is to judge people based upon appearances, and how similar we all are underneath our exterior shells. Many adults I know would benefit from giving Sneeches another read.
4. Blood isn't what makes a family. (Horton Hatches the Egg) It's funny-- I had never thought of Horton Hatches the Egg as a story about the nature of family, until my own child pointed out its underlying message. She pointed to the picture of Mayzie, the bird who abandoned her egg, and said, "The baby-bird has wings like Mayzie, because she's the one who laid the egg. But Mayzie chose not to be its mommy." I swallowed hard, knowing that my daughter was drawing a parallel between her own absent father and the irresponsible bird. My three-year-old then pointed to Horton and said, "He's the baby-bird's father, because he took good care of the egg. That's what makes him its daddy." I would have never thought of it myself, but Seuss teaches an important lesson about the nature of family bonds.
5. Be creative and imaginative. (Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!) One of my favorites, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! teaches children the importance of a little nonsense. Nonsense, as Geisel so eloquently stated, "wakes up brain cells"-- and it is, arguably, one of the most important ingredients in a happy and emotionally satisfying childhood. I like to use Seuss to stir up the creative juices in my daughter's budding mind-- and I'm happy to revert to my own childhood as I wonder, "How much water can fifty-five elephants drink?"
The child in me will never stop adoring Dr. Seuss for his contributions to the world of children's literature. But, beyond his talent for rhyme, meter and nonsensical creativity, Theodor Geisel possessed a knack for communicating moral lessons to children in a way that they find palatable and fulfilling. I am proud to have a full collection of Seussian poetry on my daughter's book shelf.
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