"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

OH DAVID! (DAVID, DAVID, DAVID.)

 

 

“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.

Really?

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.”

No?

Yes.

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.

“Let’s just start with the cover. Okay, so I see that David is knocking over the goldfish bowl. It looks to me like he really wants to see the fish but the bowl is just up too high and…”

“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.”

Ohh—kay.”

“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!”

“Me, too!”

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.

25 Responses to “OH DAVID! (DAVID, DAVID, DAVID.)”

  1. [...] bättre än “Man gör inte så!” , “Hörde du inte vad jag sa nyss?” och “NEJ!!” var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="Jag tror barn är långt ifrån dumma"; [...]

  2. Mama Mo says:

    Oh, my. You’ve certainly given me plenty to think about when it comes to No, David!

    I want to preface my disagreement about the essential spirit of the book by saying I’m a peaceful parent, ardent reader of Mr. Kohn, and I teach in a preschool classroom that is free of punishments and rewards just in case these “credentials” lend more credence to an opposing opinion.

    I have used No, David in my preschool and elementary school classes. The children most definitely respond to the drawings, especially the one where David is running down the street, naked as a jaybird. They delight in him. How often do adults use books as a form of escapism? Even if my students would never DO what David does, they can imagine it and react to it.

    I used the author’s note to spark my third graders’ interest in writing about their own lives.

    For my first grade students, I covered up the words and we collectively wrote our own.

    And with my preschool students, when we come to the end, we talk about how David’s mommy loves him even though she was angry. We talk about how words can be so powerful and hurtful. We examine David’s emotions and discuss when we’ve felt that way.

    I believe many children feel a connection to David, and that’s why I use the book in my classroom. I won’t parent the way David’s mommy does, nor will I condone it. But I also won’t deny my students a chance to connect with the book because there are other ways to approach the subject matter.

    I hope there is room for this point of view. I enjoy your blog and have learned so much from it.

    • Jennifer says:

      Mama Mo!

      absolutely. opinions, insights, opposing views…it’s all welcome here.

      and to me it sounds like you are using the book in incredibly creative ways that actively engage the children in a diaglogue.

      i love that you use it without the words and ask them to put in their own. and i totally get that they’d see their lives reflected in it and therefore that might provide comfort…they’re not the only ones. etc. I agree with anyone who relates to those drawings. they’re compelling. and they capture the energy of childhood. and i agree with you, many children do feel a connection to david. and unfortunately, i think they feel a connection to how he is treated by his mother, how he gets in trouble all the time. and likely also that their parents “still” love them “despite” their “bad” behavior.

      in light of the fact that many people are parented like that, yes it’s nice for them to not feel alone.

      and it’s nice that kids also, depending on who their parents are, get a chance to talk about the dynamic.

      what troubles me about the book is that to me it seems to be saying, kids are bad. they don’t listen. they have to get in trouble for it. parents “still” love them anyway.

      to me it’s a case study of how not to parent. and i think most parents will look at it and say, “see? i’m right! i have no other choice but to scream at my child. punish him. isolate him”

      and that makes me sad.

      also, i think on an entirely different note, and likely it should have been an entirely separate post so my two major points weren’t conflated is that to me, and again, i’m no expert and so psychologist, just a lay person who reads and observes, is that David Shannon appears to be rationalizing and even idealizing his mother’s mistreatment of him as a child. this is known to be a key factor in the perpetuation of abuse cycles. so if he is mistreated and doesn’t see it that way because he rationalizes it (i deserved it, she had no choice) then he’ll do it to his kid and on and on. it’s a self-protective mechanism that helps a child but doesn’t serve them as an adult. to me this book, given his weird, at best!, author’s note, shows this kind of thing we humans do.

      no?

      does this help clarify my position at all? it seems to me that you work with the book in the best possible way and i think it’s great. i just don’t think it usually falls into hands like yours.

      if you have any more thoughts, i’d love to hear them.

      again thank you mama mo, for reading my blog and for writing it with such thoughtful comments.

      i really welcome it. it’s all about a dialogue for me.

      xo
      jennifer

  3. Phoenix MacGregor says:

    “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.”

    Perhaps David’s mother did say *exactly* that. But all he could spell was “no” and “david”, so that is what he wrote. At 4 years old, perhaps he was left with the impression or idea of “no, david” instead of a word for word rendering of what his mother said/did. He clearly seemed to happy to share is childhood foibles.

    I’ve been a child psychologist for 12 years years, and have often used this book to interact with children and start conversations. I’m sure if one was to go back and ask them about said conversation later, that it would be paraphrased and broken down to the basic intended messages that the child could remember. I sure hope I’m not judged through that lens alone, concretely and at face value, without knowing (hopefully from me) the other parts of the experience from my perspective.

    I think this post says way more about your own childhood fears and parenting concerns than anything about the book or it’s author. But I’m not going to post a blog decrying your blog or purporting to know your message. Neither will I internally judge you, because honestly, we all have our own perspectives.

  4. Sara says:

    I read this by chance about 3 years ago – my aunt was a teacher and gave me her books when she retired and this was one of them. I hated it, for all the same reasons. Great piece!

  5. couldn’t agree more!! and there are so many more that are popular that amaze me… yikes! I am a big fan of the LadyBug girl books, however, I take issue with the brother sister relationship… it seems inconsistent with the messages in the rest of the books. Thanks!

  6. Tina B. says:

    Hi Jennifer! Your blogpost has put into words my feelings for this book! I’m also thankful that you have mentioned Echo Parenting Center in your post. I am currently being certified as a parent educator for Non Violent Parenting through the center. I find it tragic and scary that the current norm in our society is that of power over children and outright disregard for children’s feelings and needs. There is a wealth of scientific information available out there that tells us that children’s development is based immensely and primarily on the kind of relationships they have from birth. But look all around us and most of the world seems to ignore this proven fact! We still continue to parent in a way that is easy, convenient and accessible to the grown-ups. Sadly, for most people, this parenting thing is about the adults and never really about the kids. How do we then expect kids to grow up as empathetic, stable and emotionally matured individuals in the future? ……How about for starters let’s all try to take this book out of our own kids’ school’s bookshelves!!! :) . Seems like a great idea.

    • Jennifer says:

      Hi Tina,

      I’m jealous! I really want to take the parent educator course but it’s not available again i think until next Fall. I think it will be good for me for me for a number of reasons, but one is that i’ll have more research at my finger tips.

      I’m so torn. I feel like, Yes! this book should be taken out of schools but then i think, oh no! that’s censorship. It’s fine for them to be there if they are a conversation starter but sadly i think they’re used often to reinforce punitive parenting and punitive teaching. :(

      did you find my site through a link on the echo parenting page? how was the class? i’d love to learn more about your experience with it.

      and thanks again for your comment, i appreciate you taking the time.

      perhaps we’ll meet? i assume you live in the LA area?

      best,
      jennifer

  7. Molly says:

    I have always found that book so depressing. I don’t get it either. Thanks for spreading the word!

  8. mudpiemama says:

    Really enjoyed your writing on this – we have this book, it was a gift from preschool. The first time we read it my then 4 yr old laughed and said David’s mom better just hug him instead because none of that yelling seemed to be working. Their favorite page is by far the superhero on the bed illustration and I would venture a guess it’s because they see David as feeling invincible despite the yelling and punishment. Aside from the rich illustrations – I think it appeals to children because they like to know that other kids do things that are “wrong.” Non punitive families are in the minority (unfortunately) so most children I think really relate to the story as they see themselves in those various situations.
    It’s frustrating to me that the culture is such that punishment and squashing childrens natural instincts is the norm.

  9. Summer says:

    I actually used this in the classroom in my early teaching days. The kids were delighted and fascinated with it. I think all kids are drawn to other kids getting in trouble. Think of a kid getting put in time out-other kids stand and stare at the “criminal”. I think it makes them feel superior in a way; this child is funny, creative, and naughty and most importantly-not me. I agree that the tone of this is depressing. We’re a big “talk it out” family. I think though, despite our efforts to explain our rationale as we redirect behavior, a child may still feel like they are constantly told no in one form or another, and can perhaps identify with the “I can’t do what I want when I want” theme.

  10. Jennifer- I am so glad to read your post. I had exactly the reaction you did to this book. I found it tragic. And I have not been able to figure out why it’s a best seller. I think the art is so energetic and irrepressible that it appeals to both parents and children. I think children LOVE seeing someone else misbehave and get in trouble, since they so often feel like they’re in trouble. And I think parents who don’t think about it like the message that even though the child is impossible, they do of course love him and their yelling is “obviously” excusable. But could that be enough to make it a best seller? And in the end, isn’t it still tragic?

    • Jennifer says:

      Dr. Laura!

      Thank you so much for posting the link on facebook and your thoughts. A number of people have said, “But my kid loves it!” and have wondered why. And personally I do think they are responding to the drawings. But I can’t help but wonder if there is some deep-seeded part of human beings that feel compelled to see others suffer or what have you. I mean people went to see beheadings. What is that all about?

      What I find really interesting/disconcerting is the author’s muddled pov. What exactly is he celebrating? Or as an adult is he trying to still gain his mother’s approval. Perhaps part of him is saying to his mom, “This sucks! You shouldn’t have treated me like that!” But in order to get the message out without hurting her feelings, he defends her. Obviously I can’t know, but what does it say about many adults and that conflict that many of us may carry into adulthood?

      And furthermore, I think it’s a portrait of how the cycle of abuse COULD play out if in fact Shannon condone’s his mother’s behavior. It leaves me incredibly curious about how he’s raising his kids!

  11. Emily W says:

    I think a more interesting question is why does this book appeal to children? Why was your daughter so excited about it? It seems like the children are getting an entirely different message from the book than adults are (both those in favor of the type parenting demonstrated and those against it). The fact that your daughter seemed irritated and not enlightened by your analysis makes me wonder if she thought YOU weren’t getting the point (a point she may be too young to articulate but that she sees in the story).

    What if the story presents the idea of not letting anything keep you down? How do you face “no”? Are you defined by someone else’s negativity? Is your freedom entirely in someone else’s hands or are you a free agent despite outside forces? On nearly every page, David is triumphantly doing what he’s told not to. Right after the page of him dragging himself to his room, we see him dressed as a super hero and jumping on his bed with a huge smile. The kid is really unstoppable. That’s pretty admirable. Whether it comes from one’s mother or some other person, everyone faces that admonishing “NO!” and it’s important to be able to stand in your super hero cape and keep jumping on the bed. I think this could be a story to help kids see that. You’re totally right that the mom is in the wrong, but for a kid, I wonder if they care about correcting that. “How do I deal?” is a much more pertinent question for a child.

    I love your question: “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?’” Clearly, they’re not…and that just might be why children love the book so much :)

    • Jennifer says:

      Emily I think you are on to something. Lea also wrote in wondering why it holds such broad appeal for kids. Maybe it is the indominatable spirit of David.

      And I think the images are fantastic. Fun…energetic etc. So there’s that. I’m going to ask my daughter!

      But what’s the message of the book? Is he really trying to say what I think he is?

      Thanks so much for reading such a long piece (if in fact u got all the way thru it).

      I think I should have separated it into two for a blog post…readers don’t seem to like such long posts!

      i appreciate your writing in.

      Jennifer

      • Emily W says:

        I did read through the whole post. Long posts are only tedious if there are too many points to absorb or they’re boring. And I don’t think you’re boring :) I get excited every time you post something new.

        The topic is an important one too. I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s books lately, so I really appreciate your post. A writer friend of mine recently pointed out that when you reduce a book to its message or moral, you miss out on the real depth (if there is any). I’ve pondering that a lot lately as I read various books to my kids.

        The author’s intent and purpose are great things to ponder from an adult perspective (especially if you want to know something about the author). I think he probably is trying to say what you think he’s saying. I also think the joke is on him because I don’t think it’s the message that’s actually getting across to kids.

        Have you heard of this study concerning the impact of literature on children’s lying? (It starts about half way down the page.) http://books.google.com/books?id=Dpi66uK0-ScC&pg=PA37&lpg=PA37&dq=study+children+lying+boy+who+cried+wolf&source=bl&ots=jiFgR1NqJK&sig=O6Z8NHnDWLExYk9bXowNgAzG4x0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5cINT8GQBcr20gHL8f2VBg&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=study%20children%20lying%20boy%20who%20cried%20wolf&f=false

        I think it’s so interesting that the story of the boy who cried wolf had no impact on children’s lying (or if any, it increased lying). The story is blatantly an anti-lying message and kids are aware of that, but they are unmoved it’s message. It doesn’t actually give them any incentive to tell the truth. It made me laugh that most adults were certain that this story would have the greatest impact, but they were dead wrong. It just goes to show that adults can be really ignorant about the minds of children.

        • Jennifer says:

          Emily!

          Thank you so much for those kind words…I’m glad my writing isn’t falling on deaf ears!

          Yes, I admit, that in this case I am more interested, from an adult perspective, as to what the hell is going on in Shannon’s mind and perhaps I’ve cloaked it in a piece about not saying No to your kid all the time! I am actually fascinated by his profession that the book is a celebration of the universal no’s we all hear. I’m fascinated that his drawings seem to tell one story and the words another. The drawings seem to be the true story “this sucks!” and then the “i love you david” tacked on at the end so his mom won’t be mad at him for making a book about his fucked up childhood. Obviously I’m not a therapist and so I’m not in any real position to look at these things, but I think it is very very interesting. How do all of us, in someway rationalize ways we’ve been mistreated because it is simply to painful to think otherwise and how does this perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Wish I had a PhD!

          I’ll check out your link. Thank you for the reminder that our perspectives are so totally different than that of a child.

          Great to hear from you.

          Jennifer

  12. Susan says:

    Wow, I can’t believe people would hold this book up as an example of good parenting. I have a little guy named “Nolan”, and we’re always singing his name “No-No-Nolan”. He knows that mom is boss but, there’s no way I’d just yell “NO” at him all day. Yikes and thanks for the warning.

  13. Susan says:

    Wow, I can’t believe that people approve of being so negative towards their own children. I have a little guy named “Nolan”, so it’s funny for us because we are always singing to him “No-No-Nolan”. He knows that Mommy is the boss, but I don’t think I’m squashing his creativity. Thanks for the warning.

  14. Az says:

    I was very surprised when I first read “No David”, my child loved this book at school – she thought it was hysterically funny?!? But it wasn’t a book I wanted in our home. Thanks for articulating what I feel is a violent and negative story for kids. You rock Jen!

    • Jennifer says:

      hey azan,

      thanks for reading!… why oh why oh why is it in OUR SCHOOLS???

      i can understand them laughing…the pictures are fun and the book WITHOUT CAPTIONS looks like a fun kid having a fun life….just delete his mom!

      great to hear from you azan.

      xo
      jennifer

  15. Catherine says:

    Thank you for validating my opinion of this book.

  16. Joanne says:

    Thanks for the warning. I’ve never heard of these books

Leave a Reply