It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Truly awful read

One of the books the children chose from the library this week is Jenny Offill’s “17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore”. I will not be reading it to the children. (Not that children are its intended audience, anyway: it’s a poke at parents.)

It’s supposed to be the story of a bright and mischievous little girl who gets into a serious of scraps through her curiosity and creativity. And there are a few points at which that is what is really happening:

“I had an idea to dedicate my report to all beavers that ever lived.
I’m not allowed to dedicate my report to beavers anymore.”

“I had an idea to walk backward all the way home from school.
I’m not allowed to … ”
“I had an idea to freeze a dead by in the ice cube tray.”
I’m not allowed to …”
“I had an idea to wash my hands in the dog’s bowl before dinner.”
“I’m not allowed to …”

Walking backwards — if you do it as she evidently does, without casting careful glances over her shoulder — is unsafe; washing hands in dog water and making dead-fly ice cubes are unhygenic, but all are the sorts of funny things that lively, creative kids do. (I’m not sure what’s wrong with dedicating a report to beavers.) There are other ways the adults could have responded than by making yet another arbitrary “you may not” rule. So yes, here you have a lively, creative kid doing cute and unconventional things, and being pressed into the mold of conventionality by boring adults.

But then there are these items:

“I had an idea to staple my brother’s hair to his pillow.
… to glue my brother’s slippers to the floor.
… to tell my brother he’d soon be eaten by hyenas.
… to throw cauliflower at my brother at dinner.”

All of which, judging by the pictures, cause her younger brother evident distress and sometimes real physical pain. In each case she is told she may not do whatever the offense was any more. But these are not the same as the other offenses. These are not a lively, creative kid being unconventional, or at least, not merely. These are examples of a lively, creative kid being unkind and insensitive.

This is the problem with Rule-Based Parenting, of course. You end up with a million teeny-tiny specific rules, which, with no governing rational, can seem entirely random and arbitrary to the child.

What is required is a little Principle-Based Parenting. How about, instead of “You may not” rules, we have some “We always try” principles?

So, instead of “you may not do X, Y, Z to your brother”, there would be a discussion and explanation. “In our family, we always try to be kind to each other.” There would be focus on the impact of her actions on her poor brother. “We try never to do something that will make another person sad, or actually hurt them.” Further misadventures would then be evaluated with this rubric: “Do you think your brother is happy now? Or is he frightened?”

She is rude to her mother at a couple of points. How about, instead of “you may not pretend your mother is a waitress”, we have “you will treat mommy with respect” — which would also include not sticking her fingers in her ears and pretending to be deaf when her mother speaks.

The author seems not to see this distinction. Any attempt to mold a child’s actions, no matter what their actions and no matter what the actions’ effects on other people’s health and happiness, is arbitrary and stifling of the creativity and energy of innocent children. (Because children are always kind and sweet and gentle and loving in their innocence, aren’t they?)

But the worst part of the book? The really, really appalling bit?

“I had an idea to say the opposite of what I mean to trick everyone.”

The picture shows her saying “I’m sorry” to her mother, who is hugging her in gracious, grateful love and forgiveness.

The last line of the book?

“I am allowed to say the opposite of what I mean forevermore.”

Apparently Ms. Offill believes that expecting kindness, respect, and consideration for others is merely teaching a child hypocrisy. Further, that such hypocrisy is only the natural, reasonable outcome of these expectations, for which the child can not be held accountable. Obviously, the fault is in the soul-deadening conventionalities of the soul-dead adults around her bright liveliness.

Kindness? Respect? Consideration? Empathy?

Shame on us for expecting such things!

April 17, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. How did this book ever get published? I can only hope the whole book was meant as a joke of some kind.

    I once read a children’s book in which a father was so scary in his anger that his daughter hid in her playhouse for hours on end, afraid to return to the house, and the moral was “Sometimes daddy gets mad, but he still loves you, so it’s okay”. I really wondered how that one got published. It was the one and only time I’ve ever complained about a book to the librarian. Sometimes you wonder, huh?

    Comment by rambleicious | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  2. The book sounds awful, but thank you for writing about rule-based parenting. I’ve been doing alot of that lately. While I knew something wasn’t right with barking “don’t” and “no” alot, I haven’t been able to break that habit. So my child is in endless punishment for individual offenses because he can’t possibly memorize the rulebook. I’ll work on that!

    “He can’t possibly memorize the rulebook.” What a great way of putting it — and of course you’re exactly right. That is the flaw in this arrangement. Rules are simpler, but in the long-term, far more cumbersome than principles.

    Comment by MJH | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  3. What an awful book! That’s not teaching anything even remotely constructive.
    Good post about rule based parenting though. I notice that we don’t tend to do a lot of “don’t” rules but do have a lot of “always” rules. Such as “we always hold an adults hand in a parking lot” and “we always hold the stroller or mama’s hand” when we’re out and about.

    Positive is almost always best. When they’re very little, telling them what not to do does not automatically result in what to do, anyway. When you tell them “Don’t run in the house!” they do not necessarily understand that you want them to “Please walk in the house.” Simpler, and more positive, just to say what you want!

    Comment by Dani | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  4. Yeah, around here we try to turn those “you can’t’s” into “you can (do acceptable action)” or “you may choose (a couple of acceptable choices)” or “we ___ when ___.” It’s nice to try to keep it worded positively. Also definitely does help with the nit-picky rules.

    There are enough times in a parent’s life when they MUST say no to make you want to avoid it when there’s another way to express the request. If I’m getting tired of saying it, how must they feel about hearing it?? Your examples are all great options to the tedious “no, no, no” we all find ourselves falling into at least once in a while.

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  5. Wonderful post as always, but the “awful” nature of the book makes me wonder — how does one pronounce the author’s last name?

    (I did look up to confirm that it’s not a pseudonym).

    Comment by aaron | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  6. We once checked this book out of the library by mistake. We were reading it, when I started to feel uneasy. I think I said something like, “Well, that’s not very nice, is it? Do you think she should do that?” My daughter agreed and we got rid of it.

    Comment by Alison | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. thank you! i read that book with my charges and had the same reaction. of course, you put it into words much better than i could. πŸ˜›

    Comment by Lara | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  8. Well, I take your points entirely, and I agree about rules versus values heartily. Still, I have to say, I found this book pretty funny – for an OLDER child, who gets why these things are patently wrong and can giggle at the subversion, and of course for adults for the same reason. For a younger child, I don’t think it would be appropriate, and your tots, of course, fall into that heading.

    Comment by kittenpie | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  9. The “beaver” is forbidden because it’s a slang term for a woman’s pubic area. What I find a bit appalling in her including that is that any child who would get that particular “joke” has had some very inappropriate parenting. And what reasonable parent would want to be explaining it to their child? Forbidding beaver references turns it into a smutty reference, and what is smut doing in an ostensible child’s book?

    Comment by addofio | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  10. All I’ve ever known is the “do-not” type rules. I’m glad you share the positive alternative. Just from reading about it, it would seem to cut down on rules, cut out many (unnessicary?) limits, and teach the children to think about how what they’re doing is going to affect others.

    What a beautiful thing!

    Comment by Ki | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  11. How do books like that get published? Even as adult humour, it sounds stupid. For children? Forget it!

    Comment by chosha | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  12. Yay you wrote it. Very eloquently too.

    I slipped into some rule based parenting this morning myself. Told the Boy to stop talking to his sister in the bathroom, right next to the bed room because it was loud. Should have said please be quiet the Baby’s sleeping. He was
    understandably confused.

    MY husband is a stickler for very few rules that are very specific and all encompassing.

    We do what we’re told by mommy and daddy.

    We tell the truth.

    We take care of each other.

    We control ourselves, even when we are tired or angry. We don’t hurt others.

    And we have just introduced the concept of speaking respectfully to mommy and daddy, and others, because it wasn’t an issue before.

    I think this one will eventually be covered by; be polite.

    I never really thought of it in the way you have laid it out. But it makes total sense, as does he, now that you’ve talked about it.

    Comment by carrien | April 20, 2008 | Reply

  13. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out why I seem to be nagging the toddler lately, and you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Comment by Kat | April 23, 2008 | Reply

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