“I love this book!” my 5-year-old daughter Jules exclaimed at the bookstore holding up a book called No, David! “Can we buy it?”
“How do you know it?” I asked thinking Hmm! A book called No, David! by a man named David … Nothing quite piques my interest like someone looking back at their childhood. This should be interesting.
“We have it at school!” Jules exclaimed putting it on the counter.
“Sounds good,” I said, figuring that if it was good enough for the teachers at her super-progressive preschool that prided itself on things like cultivating emotional intelligence and peaceful conflict resolution, it was good enough for me.
Boy, was I wrong.
That night, all cuddled up in bed with Jules, I found myself reading her a cringe-inducing, profoundly depressing and ultimately tragic tale of a mother-son relationship.
“Oh honey! This is awful! No child should have to go through this. You know there are other ways….”
“Maww-om. Pleaaase! Just reeeead it. I love the pictures!”
For the record, I love the quirky drawings too—particularly the one where David is chewing with his mouth open and all the food is floating in his mouth like stars in space. But that’s where my admiration comes to a grinding halt. Apparently, I’m quite alone in this. The internet tells me that parents, teachers and kids alike all love themselves some No, David! In fact it’s a New York Times bestseller that’s been hailed a “classic.”
For those who aren’t familiar with it, No, David! is about a curious, energetic, inventive, life-loving little boy who is constantly being told “No!” by his stern mother. As she gets more and more exasperated with his behavior she amps up her response from yelling to sending him to his room to making him sit in the corner. In the end, his mother hugs him and concedes that “Yes, David I love you.”
At first I wondered if Shannon was trying to sympathize with kids as in Yeah, I’ve been there and it sucks. But then it quickly started to seem like he was both sympathizing with kids while defending his mother to them as in Yeah it sucks, but you gotta listen! Moms have to punish you if you don’t. It may feel awful but you deserve it, it’s for your own good and don’t worry, your parents will still love you.” And then just when I didn’t think the book could make me any more uncomfortable, I discovered Shannon’s puzzling author’s note where he explains the genesis of the book using some truly peculiar language:
A few years ago, my mother sent me a book I made when I was a little boy. It was called No, David, and it was illustrated with drawings of all sorts of things he wasn’t supposed to do. The text consisted entirely of the words “no” and “David.” (They were the only words I knew how to spell.) I thought it would be fun to do a remake celebrating those familiar variations of the universal “no” that we all hear while growing up.
Of course, “yes” is a wonderful word … but “yes” doesn’t keep crayon off the living room wall.
He thought it would be fun (!) to celebrate (!) the ways he was punished as a kid? I mean Shannon himself gives us a heart-wrenching picture of a little boy sitting in a corner with tears dripping down his face. Where’s the fun in celebrating that? Am I alone in finding his celebration perverse? I can see exorcizing his demons as liberating, but celebrating the ways his enthusiasm was punitively squashed?
Reading Shannon’s note, I couldn’t help but picture a confused, hurt and angry little boy being sent to his room, yet again, grabbing a pencil and paper and in the depths of his despair scrawling the words No! No! No! No!—so angry and hurt but ultimately so desperate for his mother’s love that he was ready to fall into her arms at the first sign of her softening. I imagine it must be so hard for young children to wrap their minds around the idea that things they’re inexplicably driven to do—like banging on pots and pans loudly and jumping around like a superhero—are so bad that they would cause the woman who loves them most to do and say and things to them that feel so hurtful. But then I couldn’t help but feel for a man who either truly thinks or at least professes to think that it would be fun to celebrate something that had been so obviously hurtful for him. Is Shannon rationalizing or perhaps even idealizing his mother’s treatment of him because it might be too painful to think otherwise?
Whatever the case may or may not be, I know Shannon’s psychological state is none of my business (which doesn’t keep me from being intrigued!) However, what I do truly care about is the toxic message his book is promoting: Kids are wild (and bad) and need to be tamed through admonishments and punishments.
To be clear, while I obviously disagree with Mrs. Shannon’s approach to raising children, I don’t blame her. And I don’t blame Shannon for rationalizing his mother’s treatment of him. Like all of us, they’re both a product of the way they were raised and the culture of their times. But today, there is a hell of a lot more information out there about things like children’s brain development, human behavior, the affects of punishment, cycles of abuse and the like. And really the buck has to stop somewhere.
So where I do find fault is that when Shannon was an adult who felt compelled to share his childhood experiences with the world, that he, or his publishers—Blue Sky Press—didn’t do it in a more thoughtful and responsible way. Do they really want to condone, let alone celebrate the punishment of children? Because the truth is, there are plenty of ways to set limits and gain children’s cooperation without admonishing, humiliating and isolating them. In fact, while the only point I do agree with Shannon on is that “yes” in and of itself doesn’t keep crayons off the walls, the spirit of “yes” combined with a little creativity, understanding and compassion absolutely can and does.
How about a response like this:
“David honey, I can see how a big blank white wall looks so inviting, but walls aren’t for coloring on. Actually, let me rephrase that, our walls aren’t for coloring on….
It’s true, there are plenty of artists—some really famous like the Diego Rivera and Michelangelo—who have painted on walls, and even ceilings! Actually now that I think about it, prehistoric man was drawing on the walls of caves over 30,000 years ago! Hmm, I wonder if it’s some sort of primal impulse we all have? Anyway honey, we don’t allow drawing on the walls in our house. But I have an idea. I’m going to buy you some big poster boards and tape them to the wall so you can make the really large drawings you love. But until you’re old enough to remember not to draw on the walls, I’m going to hang out with you when you draw. When I can’t, I’ll have to put the crayons away and you can play something else.”
As a matter of fact, after Jules and I had finished reading No! David , I told her that I wanted to take a a moment to discuss what happened to David and to brainstorm with her about ways his mother could have handled things differently.
“Yeah, ” Jules said, pointing to the picture. “See how he piled up books so he could climb up higher?”
“That was clever of him! I hadn’t even noticed. Gosh he really wanted to see those fish. How do you think he felt when his plan failed and he knocked over the table and the fishbowl by accident?”
“Sad for the fish. Maybe scared.”
“Yeah…and then to have his mom yell at him? I bet that made him feel even worse. You know, I don’t think his mother used the best judgment when she put the fishbowl on a small but tall pedestal table in the middle of the room. I mean what’s the fun in having fish if you can’t easily get a good look? Can you think of any better places they could have put it?”
Together Jules and I decided a dresser with a step stool nearby would have given David the access he needed while giving the fish the protective space they needed.
“Ohh-kaaay Mom…now can we read Fancy Nancy?”
“Sure honey,” I said, “I just want to tell you one last really important thing about this book.”
“I want you to know that children aren’t born knowing what they can and can’t do and that it’s their parents job to help them learn. But it’s so important how parents do it, because if parents treat children with respect and understanding, then that’s what their kids will learn. But if parents are impatient and hurtful then that’s what their kids will learn and I don’t want you or your brother to think it’s okay to be mean to other people. It’s not. No one deserves to be treated the way David was.”
“Ohhkaayy mom. I want to read Fancy Nancy!”
I realize I’m incredibly naïve to think that in the 13 years since NO, DAVID! was first published that someone would have convinced either Shannon or Blue Sky Press that they are promoting a dated parenting style that mistreats children. On the contrary, the runaway success of NO, DAVID! has spawned an entire series of books like David Goes to School where David has to stay after, scrub the floor and write I will not do something or other a thousand times on the chalkboard. Personally I can’t even bare to check out David Gets in Trouble. That phrase! Being “in trouble” is just so threatening—you’re either in it or out if it, but it’s always there. I hear that’s the one where David gets his mouth washed out with soap! I can’t help but wonder with so many people punishing David so much of the time, if any of them stopped to wonder if the punishments were “working?”
I can only hope that at some point David Shannon will have a serious shift in his thinking (perhaps by stumbling upon Marshall Rosenberg’s Respectful Parents Respectful Kids or Echo Parenting or Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting or Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good) and is inspired to create yet another version of No, David! that tells the story of David’s mother helping him find acceptable outlets for his energy and creativity instead of setting him up to fail and then punishing him when he does. Perhaps he’ll call it Yes, David! Now that would be something fun to celebrate. Shannon, if you’re listening, consider this an official offer from me to host a huge book party.