If I were not a Christian, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books would be my holy scripture. When I meet a sane adult, I assume his sanity comes largely from having heard Frog and Toad stories in his youth. Yesterday, I read my sophomore humanities students four stories from a Frog and Toad anthology. It would be impolite to assume you, noble reader, are not intimately familiar with all the Frog and Toad stories, but, in case too many years have elapsed between today and your last reading, I will briefly describe the four stories I read to my sophomores:
In “Cookies,” Toad bakes some very delicious cookies, takes them to Frog, and the two spend all afternoon eating the cookies. They become increasingly concerned by their inability to stop eating the cookies. Frog suggests they invent various devices to separate themselves from the cookies, yet they find ways of returning to the cookies, nonetheless. In the end, Frog feeds the cookies to the birds of the air. The cookies are no longer a temptation.
In “The Lost Button,” Toad loses a button on his jacket, then leads Frog on a tour of all the places the button may be. Many animals of the forest find buttons and bring them to Toad, but none match the button he has lost. As the animals bring the wrong buttons to Toad, he becomes increasingly angered. Finally, he is shouting and stamping. Upon returning home, Toad finds the button he was looking for was under his nose all along. Toad decoratively sews all the wrong buttons on a jacket for Frog as a way of making up for his anger and small-mindedness.
In “Tomorrow,” Toad lays in bed, depressed by the thought of all the chores he will have to do tomorrow. Frog catalogues all the chores and Toad is more depressed than ever by the thought of all the work he will have to do. Then Toad begins doing his chores a day early so that he will not have to worry about doing them tomorrow. In the end, Toad finishes all of his chores, then goes back to bed, now free of worry.
In “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river, but Toad will not permit Frog to see him out of the water because he looks funny in his bathing suit. All the animals of the forest slowly gather beside the river to see if Toad actually looks funny in his bathing suit, but Toad refuses to come out of the water and be seen. Finally, he becomes cold and gets out of the water, even though the animals of the forest are still watching. Everyone laughs at how funny Toad looks. Toad agrees he looks ridiculous, then walks home.
Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth, and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.
Not every children’s book from these decades involved the same kind of lesson-learning, but a great many did. The formula was quite simple:
A happy child encounters some moral or material problem.
The child does not believe he can conquer the problem and becomes unhappy.
Parents and friends help the child conquer the problem and the child is happy again.
Few children’s books still follow this formula, though, and to prove this I would simply suggest you flip through a few best-selling kid’s books at your local Barnes & Noble. After reading my students the Frog and Toad stories, I read them Peter Sis’s book Madlenka (2000). The plot of Madlenka run as such:
A young New Yorker named Madlenka realizes she has a wiggly tooth. She walks around her block telling all the vendors and shopkeepers on the street that her tooth is loose. Each vendor or shopkeeper is from a different nation, and each celebrates Madlenka’s loose tooth in a different way. At the end of the story, Madlenka returns home. Her parents ask her where she has been. She replies that she has been around the world and that her tooth has fallen out.
After finishing Madlenka, I asked my students how it was different from the Frog and Toad stories, and they said that “nothing happened” in Madlenka. They were quite right, for Madlenka is a story with no tension and no drama. Why? Because Madlenka has no problem to solve. A young girl has a wiggly tooth and the whole world celebrates. The celebration begins before the tooth has even fallen out, but the reader does not even get to see the tooth fall out. Rather, the tooth magically falls out on its own at some point in the story, between the pages, I suppose, and Madlenka announces this to her parents on the final page.
If Madlenka had been written back in the 1970s, the whole story would have unfolded very differently. The loss of a first tooth is, for many children, a slightly unnerving experience. First, the waiting. Then a little pain, then a little blood, then dad must tell grisly stories of how wiggly teeth were removed when he was a child. Finally, the child trades a little piece of his own skull to a fairy for a dollar. The 1970s version of Madlenka would have depicted mother and father calmly explaining to a nervous child that losing wiggly teeth does not hurt too much, but that growing up means losing all your baby teeth, and so forth. “When I was your age, I lost my teeth, too,” mother would say. The final page would depict a smiling child holding a dollar the next morning.
However, children’s books have become increasingly squeamish when it comes to addressing genuine human problems, let alone the idea that vice must be painfully overcome through virtue. In the 1970s, a girl named Tina in a children’s book might be afraid to learn to ride a bike, then slowly learn with the help of her mother and friends. Today, the same book does not involve Tina learning anything, but is simply 1) a celebration of the fact Tina can already ride a bike or 2) a celebration of the fact Tina could learn to ride a bike if she so chose or 3) a celebration of the fact that while Tina cannot ride a bike, she can do 50 other interesting things. Granted, not all contemporary kids books are this banal, but one should not pick up a lately published children’s book and expect to find a character like Frog, who recognizes that he and his friend are gluttons and properly concludes, “We need will power.”
Contemporary children’s books are big on celebrations. Were Frog and Toad stories rewritten today, Frog and Toad would feel no need to stop eating cookies but finish the bowl and celebrate their new curvaceous amphibian bodies. Toad would feel no need to clean his house but celebrate the fact that some people are simply messy and others are just neat. I also sense that Toad is— to us, at least— a lost button survivor, and that regardless of how unvirtuously he handled losing his button, he deserves a medal just for having something mildly unfortunate happen to him.
This current tendency (in children’s books and the world beyond) to sidestep problems and suffering and instead focus on praise and celebration has not made our lives more enjoyable, more satisfying, or more peaceable. While lately published articles suggest Americans are among the most stressed out people in the world, I am not content that “most stressed out” distinguishes handling a lot of stress well from handling a little stress very poorly. As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self.
While conservative Christians are apt to laugh at the zeitgeist for offering Stanley Cup-sized trophies for nineteenth place, the modern demand for celebrations has subtle ways of creeping into Christian speech, as well. Christian parents are increasingly comfortable asking that exceptions be made for their children. I am not referring to reasonable requests that a child sit out during gym because he has a sprained ankle or an upset stomach. Exceptions are rapidly becoming the rule in parent-teacher conferences. Vices and immaturities are readily written off as by-products of personality. The student who doesn’t like correction is neither proud nor arrogant, but “easily discouraged.” And then there are the myriad issues which are excused by “learns at his own pace,” “not a visual learner,” “takes a long time to process,” “easily bored,” “quite independent,” and, “very smart, actually.” It is not my intention to brush every exception to the rules off the checker board with the back of my hand, but I will say this: a great many people in the Christian world who insist (with doctrinaire certainty) that there are only two genders nonetheless invent thousands of excuses for other abnormal behavior.
Conquering my own problems with stress and anxiety should begin with the acknowledgment that neither I nor my children are special. Special is a curse. Special is an illusion. Special is fake holy. There is nothing wrong with regular children such that mine need to be special. The pursuit of special is contempt for nature. We need to recover an understanding of the expression “most people,” and we desperately need the humility to see ourselves referenced therein. The internet is an absolutely terrible place to make claims about “most people,” because few things charge a man with greater self-importance than the opportunity to claim himself a great big exception to what is true of “most people.” The internet is thus a place where wisdom and common sense go to die, for wisdom and common sense are simply what is true for “most people” most of the time.
Our problem with anxiety and stress will not end until we quit celebrating the faults of our children and teach them to fight those faults, instead. We must let our children fail when they deserve to do so—and sometimes even when they don’t deserve it. In the same way our Heavenly Father did not politick and argue His Son’s path to the top but subjected Him to the rules and allowed Him to suffer, we must also quit politicking and arguing for our children and not treat every kind of suffering as an injustice. If anyone was special, surely it was Jesus Christ, and yet He did not make Himself an exception.
We should consider also how little the Father says of the Son during His earthly ministry and not overpraise our children. We must not insist they deserve better grades and more awards. When our children do a sloppy job setting the table, we must tell them to do better. When they hastily throw together a birthday card for Grandpa, and we know they are capable of much better, we must throw the old card away and start them again with a little admonition on going slowly and coloring inside the lines. They will not die, as Solomon says, and when it is the school’s turn to discipline our children, we must not demand the administration “show grace” and disregard the rules. We must allow our children the unpleasant work of gaining will-power and self-awareness. Our children must learn to see themselves as characters in a story, and we need to understand they are not always sympathetic characters. Madlenka is tyrannically sympathetic, forcibly sympathetic. Peter Sis, Madlenka’s creator, refused to place her in any situation where the reader’s affection was not guaranteed, but Arnold Lobel was willing to put Toad through the wringer— because of this, Toad could win our sympathy and respect. Sis simply refused to make his characters free enough to fail.
So, too, we must acknowledge that the moral universe of Frog and Toad is simply our universe, no discipline is pleasant at the time, and that parents and teachers alike are sometimes obligated to make the lives of students unpleasant. Frog and Toad stories are good stories for most people. Be most people.