One of the reasons I love being a parent is getting to revisit children’s literature and discover the newest stories. Although I knew about Dr Seuss, I realized that I hadn’t actually read many of his books.
A good friend gave our son a Horton doll, so Horton Hears a Who was a natural starting place. What a wonderful message for children: a person’s a person no matter how small. Then The Lorax, quite a progressive environmental novel for the sixties. We were thrilled at how Dr. Seuss could affect our young son’s thinking about the world. For instance, when LPD [Little Pirate Dude – not his real name, unfortunately – editor] helps me put recycling in its bin, I tie it to The Lorax and our responsibility to the environment. Some of it sinks into his developing brain; more will click later. His young age doesn’t stop us from planting the seeds.
One day, I figured we should begin at the beginning and bought The Cat in the Hat. How exciting! I knew the character but nothing about his origin.
Well, I got quite a shock. The whole story raises serious red flags, in terms of consent, and reads like a manual for child molesters.
The Cat arrives when the kids (Nick and Sally) are home alone:
“I know some good games we could play,”
Said the cat.
“I know some new tricks,”
Said the Cat in the Hat.
“A lot of good tricks.
I will show them to you.
Your Mother will not mind at all if you do.*
Then Sally and I
Did not know what to say.
I in no way mean to imply that Theodore Seuss Geisel was intending for children to ignore their instincts about the creepy family friend who wants to show them “new and good tricks” while Mother is out. But many children have a similar experience, and are subtly or violently bullied into staying quiet by the perpetrator.
The Fish in the story vehemently disagrees with The Cat’s presence, to which The Cat replies:
“Have no fear!” Said the cat
“My tricks are not bad”
He then punishes Fish by playing “the game that I call UP-UP-UP with a fish!” Fish cries out to be put down, for he is not having fun with this game. The Cat merely raises him higher, saying “Have no fear!” Fish repeats that he does not like this game at all.
How does Cat respond? By saying that because he, The Cat, who has taken control of the situation, likes the game, he will not go away, but show them another good game that he knows.
Before we get into the next game, I want to explain how coercion plays into the child molester manual. (Let’s not even get into Green Eggs and Ham.) I don’t want my child to believe that he has no say in what games he plays if he finds them uncomfortable. Alternately, I also don’t want him to learn how to convince a friend to do what he wants by negating his friend’s feelings. We don’t force hugs or kisses in our house or make him feel guilty when he doesn’t want to embrace. We give him agency over his own body and try with all our might to instill confidence and trust in us, so that he will say something if anyone ever makes him uncomfortable.
I know it seems weird that someone under the age of two can grasp the concept of consent, but they know when and how they like to be touched. I want him to understand that he can change his mind in the middle of a game, too. Trust me, if there is any word that a toddler understands, it is “No.”
So it doesn’t feel right that we should go to all these lengths teaching him to feel comfortable with his body and feelings, then read a story where the main character tells the children how they will feel, in no uncertain terms, and railroads any objections.
“I call this game FUN-IN-A-BOX,”
Said the cat. ”In this box are two things
I will show to you now.
You will like these two things,”
Emphasis is mine, but “fun in a box” made my hair stood on end. Then we’re introduced to Thing One and Thing Two.
“These things will not bite you.
They want to have fun…..
Would you like to shake hands
With Thing Two and Thing One?”
And Sally and I
Did not know what to do.
So we had to shake hands
With Thing One and Thing Two.
We shook their hands.
How many people do you know who’ve found themselves in a situation where they did not know what to do or say (or what they did or said wasn’t working) and so just went along with an uncomfortable sexual situation?
There are a million ways it could happen, a million scenarios that could play out. It doesn’t change the vomitous feeling in my stomach when I first read that out loud to my son, or how my voice faltered as I recognized what Nick and Sally felt, and knew I never wanted my son on either side of that scenario.
Even while realizing this, I did not know what to do and so stayed in a state of mild shock, that kept me reading to him, but now in a monotone, as I realized what I felt. That feeling took days, even weeks, to process. I hid the book and skipped that track on the audio book (sorry, Kelsey Grammar – your dulcet tones somehow made it worse). I hid it, just like sometimes you hide unintended or unwanted sexual encounters. I joked about it to my husband but didn’t express how I felt, not really. I let it fester. I thought about writing this post for weeks. It got to the point that I had trouble enjoying anything Seuss-related, because I wasn’t admitting to myself how much I disliked this specific book. It was better when I just thought The Cat was the mainstay of the Seuss universe, and didn’t know his particular story.
Basically, I had all the same feelings about the book itself that I didn’t want my son to feel in any sort of physical or sexual situation.
Consent is a tricky beast. Even as I write these thoughts, I feel both empowered to express them and worried about the assumptions people might make about me or potential comments on how I am overreacting. Some may say it is just a story and that the intent to make children feel they should give in to an abuser was never the point of The Cat in the Hat. I agree that Dr. Seuss likely never intended that. Yet I feel it, and stories are powerful teachers for societal constructs. I cannot ignore these feelings, especially when my husband and I do everything else to live our lives in the happiest way possible, and work so hard to show our son our values by example.
In the story, Nick does finally speak up once they see their Mother is coming home. He insists that The Cat leave after he clean up the mess he made. Great, right? Except The Cat looks humbled and pulls out the guilt card:
“Oh dear!” said the cat.
“You did not like our game…
What a shame!
What a shame!
What a shame!”
The ending is the real kicker. Returning to The Cat’s insistence that “Your Mother will not mind at all if you do”, eventually The Cat leaves and their Mother returns, but Nick and Sally don’t know if they should explain to her what happened. They ask the question:
Well, what would you do,
If your Mother asked you?
It’s good that it ends with that question, but I could stomach it more if the story didn’t make me feel like Nick and Sally were bullied into going along with The Cat and then left sitting by the window suspended with confusion as to whether or not they should tell their Mother about what happened.
I don’t want my son to think that is okay and normal. By our reading it to him, we would send him that message. I could frame it, I suppose, as a way not to act, but there are so many good books by Dr. Seuss, and I do not want to tarnish those experiences. So I’m getting rid of this book and focusing on the ones that send good messages. I don’t want to hide it from him either, so when he’s older, I’ll just tell him how I feel. It could even come in handy when we have a serious talk about consent, and he understands the difference between behavior we want him to emulate and not. It probably isn’t too long from now, unfortunately, that we will need to discuss consent in more detail.
Until then, I’ll stick with Horton and the Lorax.
Here are other Ways Parents Teach that Consent Doesn’t Matter
*The PBS Kids carton made a big effort to turn this phrase into a learning moment. Every single time The Cat arrives and invites them on an adventure, he says Your Mother will not mind at all if you do, and then Nick or Sally run and ask the permission of whichever Mother is presumably watching them that particular day. I have strong feelings on how their Mothers are portrayed in these sequences as well, but that’s a whole other blog post.