Since welcoming my son to the world more than 3 years ago, I’ve become much more familiar with the wonderful wisdom of Dr. Seuss. Prior to having my own child, my experience with Dr. Seuss was the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” that I received on my high school graduation day. I had read “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” in elementary school, but they weren’t my favorite stories by any means. I enjoy “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket,” but mostly because of its fantastical nature and not deeper-meaning undercurrents that exist there.
But today, on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, I can honestly say my son’s love of reading has broadened my knowledge of Dr. Seuss’s vast treasure trove of timeless stories. And I’m grateful for what he’s written, because he offers important life lessons in what appear to be just wacky, imaginative tales.
1. Differences in appearances don’t matter.
“The Sneetches” tells the story of two sets of creatures – those who have stars on their bellies and those who don’t. The ones with stars treat the other ones badly – excluding them from events and treating them as less than. Then a fast-talking salesman offers the starless Sneetches the opportunity to join the other half, which they immediately take advantage of. That causes the other Sneetches to jump in the “star-off” machine to continue to segregate themselves from the others. The whole situation ends in a crazy rigamarole with stars being removed and added in rapid succession. The salesman thinks he’s fooled the Sneetches, but really, he proved an incredible point – “No kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars And whether they had one, or not upon thars.”
I finished reading this book to my son the other night and realized this was the perfect opening to talk about diversity and tolerance. Granted, my son is only 3, so the conversation was brief, but at least we chatted about how all people look different from each other, but that’s okay, because people are people. No one is better than any other group.
2. Fear can be overcome.
I had never read “What Was I Scared Of?” before I had a child, and now it’s one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories. The narrator encounters a pair of pale green pants “with nobody inside them,” and he is frequently scared of this strange creature. The narrator tries to demonstrate that he isn’t afraid, but he clearly is (“And then my heart, I must admit, It kind of started thumping”). When the two finally come face-to-face, the narrator is shocked to learn that the pale green pants are just as scared of him as he is of them. His attitude changes suddenly, and he comforts the pants, quickly becoming friends with them.
We all encounter fear in our life, but it’s how we handle that fear that truly defines our character. I talk to my son frequently about what it means to be brave, and this story is a great example of the positive outcome that often results from facing a fear. In the narrator’s case, it was a new friend. In my son’s case, it might mean experiencing something exhilarating, like the rush of a ferris wheel or the soft fur of a dog at the park. For me, it might mean opening myself up to being vulnerable in front of people. Fear manifests in many ways, but it can always be overcome.
3. You can question authority respectfully.
“Yertle the Turtle,” that marvelous he, is quite the authoritarian figure in Sala-ma-Sond. He disrupts an idyllic living because of his ambitions, and he ends up forcing the other turtles in the pond to serve him by acting as a high throne on which he will sit and rule. Only one, a “plain little turtle” named Mack, questions what he is doing and the repercussions of his actions for the others. He is respectful of Yertle, who responds by berating Mack for questioning him and his decisions. Finally, Yertle’s ambitions end in catastrophe when Mack simply burps, but “his burp shook the throne of the king.” The story ends with an altruistic notion: “And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free. As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”
Wow, let’s unpack that one for a second. While the book was originally intended to represent Adolf Hilter’s rise in Germany, in today’s political and social climate, it’s never been more important to question the decisions of those in positions of authority. We just have to remember that doing so respectfully is an art form. Disagreement and discord is a part of life, but how we handle the process of coming to a mutual understanding about the decisions being made speaks to our values and principles. I cannot demand respect from authority figures regarding my individual rights if I’m unwilling to offer respect in return. And even if I am treated poorly in response to my questioning, I do not have to forego my values and respond negatively, no matter how tempting that is.
So, thank you, Dr. Seuss, for entertaining children and adults alike for 80 years. You’ve taught us countless lessons about actions being more important than words (The Big Brag), taking care of the environment (The Lorax), and being responsible for our dreams and our decisions (Oh, the Places You’ll Go). And the most important lessons are the ones we learn alongside the loved ones in our lives.