Friday, July 19, 2013

Curious George: Preschool Psychology in a Cute Book

My daughter’s new favorite book series is Curious George. If you don’t know, Curious George is a curious little monkey who is taken from his home in Africa by his friend, the man in the yellow hat, to come and live in New York. The current series of books is based on the characters created by the original authors, Margaret and H.A. Rey. The books all follow pretty much the same pattern. George and the man with the yellow hat are doing something (going to the aquarium, preparing for a party, attending a baseball game, etc…) and George gets curious about something. He explores it and gets himself into trouble by making a big mess. Then he runs off to get away from the people who are angry at him, but sees someone in trouble and stops to help, making a big difference. That gets him out of trouble and by the end of the story his mischief is forgiven and everyone is happy. There are some variations; sometimes his initial action that causes trouble also has unintended positive consequences as well. Overall though, the stories keep to the same template - curiosity, thoughtless action, trouble, redemption.

My daughter loves these stories, and I don’t mind them. They aren’t the best moral teachers but they are kind of cute, and the illustrations are sweet. The world they describe is very old fashioned compared to the world we live in so the books have a nostalgic feel. Curious George is essentially a three year old with more advanced physical capabilities (and wow, am I glad my daughter can’t climb and run the way Curious George can! My husband and I would be dead in the water as parents). He’s curious and takes a great deal of initiative in his activities but doesn’t have the capability to plan or consider consequences. He doesn’t want to get into trouble but he does because he can’t see the bigger picture of how his actions will play out or how people will react to him.

Curious George offers an accurate psychological picture of a young child. I’m constantly telling my almost three year old “don’t do that, that’s dangerous, stop you’ll get hurt, be careful.” To which she frequently responds, already, “I AM being careful!” Which, of course, she is not, but she’s learned what she’s supposed to say. This afternoon my husband brought her to the hospital where I work to have lunch. This is a rare treat for me, that my schedule is open enough and their schedule is open enough that we can get together for lunch. While we were heading back to their car from the cafeteria I had to constantly caution my daughter about not running, not spinning, and not careening into other people. She doesn’t intend to bump into people or cause accidents, but her ability to process the logical consequences of her course of action is lacking.

I did find a safe place for her to spin before they left just so I could take pleasure in her sheer joy in the motion. I can remember loving to spin too as a young child, twirling around and around until I was so dizzy I fell laughing onto the couch while the room spun around me. Now, as an adult, I am far too aware of the possibility of bumping into things or getting hurt to enjoy spinning. Mind you, I think falling hurts more as an adult (I’m further from the ground and less flexible) but mostly I’m just cautious. As a “grown-up” I’ve lost much of the exuberance my daughter demonstrates; my mind is filled with potential physical and social consequences that inhibit my behavior.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t live life as Curious George, after all. In real life most accidents don’t have such fortunate consequences and people are much less forgiving, particularly of adults who are expected to know better. The ability to take potential outcomes into account when planning your course of action is considered a key psychological strength. One of the joys of parenthood, however, is stealing a few moments to vicariously recapture that joyful lack of caution through your child.