22 June 2010

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Caps for Sale: a Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina  is a classic that was first published in 1938, when apparently fifty cents was a reasonable price for a hat.  Charlie and I enjoyed listening to Miss Patty read this at our local library a couple weeks ago, and the other day he caught a glimpse of the book on the shelf and was eager to hear the story again.

In case you're unfamiliar, the plot is quite simple:  a peddler carries a stack of various colored caps upon his head.  He naps under a tree and then wakes to find monkeys wearing the caps they have stolen from him.  Every attempt to get the monkeys to give him back his caps results in the monkeys merely imitating the peddler's angry gestures, and when he throws his own cap to the ground in exasperation, he inadvertently succeeds in retrieving his merchandise.

It's no wonder that young children continue to enjoy this story. The appeal lies not only in the illustrations and simple, humorous plot; they get the joke more than one might think.  Certainly preschoolers identify on some level with the silly mimicry of the monkeys.  And it isn't much of a stretch to see how the peddler's reaction to the monkey's mischief (and his inability to win their compliance) mirrors the way in which we as parents often react to our children's misbehavior, and the limitations of coercive "discipline" techniques.  The joke is really on us.

Modeling is understood to be one of the most effective educational strategies, and it makes sense because children naturally tend to imitate what they see around them.  The findings of a couple recent studies support this idea.  It was publicized some years ago that regular reading to children is not not in itself enough to ensure their success as fluent readers; a "literacy rich home environment" was a more predictive factor.  (Sorry I was unable to find the source.)  Similarly, forcing children to eat so many forkfuls of veggies per meal is less likely to produce healthy eaters than simply setting a good example by eating well oneself.  A 2004 study found "that a positive parental role model may be a more effective means to facilitate change than parental attempts to impose control over their child’s food intake."  Interestingly, active coercion & manipulation resulted in less compliance and greater likelihood of negative issues with food and body image.  "Do as I say, not as I do" is an approach bound to fail, and the energy expended on the attempt to control children's behavior might not only be a waste but instead produce unintended consequences.

I'd never suggest that parents can be responsible for their children's behavior, through a failure of role-modeling or otherwise.  Every day my son finds some way to remind me of the limitations of my control over him.  From my perspective, that is as it should be--he is his own person, after all.  But I've often found that it helps a great deal to take a hard look at myself before judging him too harshly.  How often his words and behavior mirror my own.  Just this afternoon, I explained to him that it was time to get ready to go.  "When I'm finished with this," he insisted.  We needed to accomplish a task before being a certain place at a certain time, a concept not fully grasped by a three-year-old, so I might have pulled rank as the parent in charge and responded with, "No, we need to leave now," followed by action to direct him out the door.  But his words echoed those I uttered myself earlier, when he wanted me to stop reading an article and read a story to him.  If I want him to exhibit consideration and patience when my wishes and needs are of interest, then I need to demonstrate the same respect to him.  If I want a child capable of compromise, I need to show him how it works.  Neither of us will get what we want all the time, but that's how life is.

The peddler, by being slow on the uptake, was lucky to get his hats back at all.  Though compliance can't be guaranteed, as parents we can be more likely to foster cooperative relationships with our children through conscious self-awareness.