About Me
Good Night Moon: Early Literacy Experiences that Support Emotional Growth panel

presented at the Zero to Three National Training Institute
New Orleans, LA
December 3-7, 2003

Margot Kaplan, Ph.D., moderator
Speaker: Robie H. Harris
Response: Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D., Professor, UCSF Department of Psychiatry Director, Child Trauma Research Project, San Francisco General Hospital
Comments by Alicia F. Lieberman

When I was small my mother used to tell me stories about real children. One time I asked her to tell me a story about princesses and knights living in a castle, and she told me: “I don’t know how to tell that kind of story. I only know how to tell stories about real boys and girls”. I remember her answer made a deep impression on me because until then I had believed that my mother could do anything and everything she wanted to. I also remember that after this exchange I began to listen to her stories with a new appreciation for how these stories reflected who my mother was. Now I believe that those stories helped me to become… a noticer. For that reason, Robie Harris’s books about real children evoke for me something viscerally familiar and well loved.

The books by Robie Harris that Jeree Pawl read to us in her own inimitable way demonstrate something that we know intuitively: we learn through the arts more effectively than through any other means, because the arts engage our senses, our feeling, and our thinking in an integrated manner that changes us and our way of experiencing the world. We all carry inside us fragments of song, lines of poetry or passages from books that we read or were read to us in the course of our lives. We all have engraved within us paintings and drawings that seized us with delight or terror, opening a door to realms that we could not enter on our own. These words and images re-emerge in the least expected moments, when we wake up in the middle of the night or as we are driving to work, and echo in our minds for a long time, sending a message that we don’t always grasp directly but that engages us in the effort to understand. Art conveys meaning by addressing our unconscious, and for that reason artists are teachers whose lessons endure even when we can’t articulate the content of what we are learning.

Psychologists, on the other hand, strive to bring the unconscious to the fore. We want to examine and pin down what is elusive, and we cultivate a conviction that conscious awareness is the key to emotional health. We also know, however, that the unconscious is the motherlode of creativity. This is to our credit. There is such a thing as too much analysis, as many artists who declined to be psychoanalyzed for fear of losing the impetus for their creations dimly understood. What they may not have realized is that there are ways of giving to art what belongs to art and to psychology what belongs to psychology. Today my delicate task is to bring psychological reflection to art intended for very young children, and I am respectful of the limits of my charge. The words and images we were just treated to speak for themselves and don’t need elaboration. At the same time, becoming more aware of the latent content of books for children can help us use them in more deliberate ways to enhance the emotional growth of the children and parents we work with. I will comment briefly on three of the books we heard and saw.

Let’s begin with “Happy Birth Day!” Starting with the title, we encounter the writer’s gift for deconstructing well-trodden expressions to show us the meaning behind them, as when the habitual “birthday” reverts to its origins by becoming “Birth Day”, the day of one’s birth. The first sentence: “I’ll never ever forget the moment you were born” is the parental affirmation that every child needs in order to assuage what Freud called the ancestral, universal first fear of humans — the fear of being abandoned and unloved. This is the mother’s assurance that the child is powerfully, indelibly imprinted in her mind forever and ever. This affirmation of love is the prelude in the book to an anatomically correct description of what birth consists of, explained with words that say just enough to prompt questions from the listening child, but not so much that the child becomes overwhelmed by details beyond his or her capacity to process them. This description of the birth, with its potentially unsettling emotional elements of a pushing head and a wet and slippery body underscored by the unprettified illustration of the newborn still attached to the umbilical cord and held by the doctor’s hands, is immediately followed by a second unconditional affirmation: “We saw all of you from head to toe and we loved you the moment we saw you”. This sentence reminded me of the account of creation in the Book of Genesis, when God witnessed what he had “created and made” and concluded that “it was good”. In the first two pages of “Happy Birth Day”, displayed side by side, every child’s wish to know: “How are babies born?” is answered clearly and honestly, and the answer is embedded in the overriding confirmation that the child’s birth is an expression of the parent’s love.

Throughout the book we encounter similar juxtapositions: the distresses as well as the life-giving functions of physicality, the smallness of the newborn belying her early competence in self-care, the baby who cannot understand language but who is spoken to and therefore endowed with personhood. The newborn’s first cry is “as loud as a coyote howling at the moon” — its strength tempers the protest inherent in it, and the protest itself is life giving because the cry is simultaneously the baby’s first breath. The baby burps, pees and poops, sneezes and hiccups, and the parents celebrate these occurrences as demonstrations of the baby’s innate competence. The message to the listening child as the book is read aloud is: “your bodily functions are marvelous, there is nothing about you that is disgusting or unwanted, and everything your body does has an important reason to be”. For two, three and four year olds, who are struggling with their helplessness and self-doubt as they try to master new demands for socialization, ranging from potty training to good manners, this message could not be better timed. The baby’s power in enlisting the parent as a partner in growing up is succinctly conveyed as the book lingers on small moments of deep meaning, such as the newborn’s long gaze into her mother’s eyes and later grabbing on to the father’s finger and holding it tight. The compelling pictures reinforce the message of reciprocity and acceptance by showing people in all their creatureliness, real instead of cute, lovable being exactly who they are.

The second book we read, “Hi New Baby”, takes us to another developmental domain: the young child’s struggle to master intense feelings of anger, jealousy and rejection when a sibling is born. Here again the book begins with a statement about how unforgettable some growing up moments are. This time, wisely, the narrator’s focus shifts from the newborn to the older child who must come to terms with the sibling’s birth: “I’ll never forget the moment you met your new baby brother”. This statement addresses head on the biggest fear of an older sibling: “Now I won’t matter any more. You love the new baby so much that you don’t even notice me”. The book goes on to describe the many facets of the child’s reactions: the inevitable inconsistencies of response, from protesting that the baby doesn’t do anything to protesting that the baby does too much, and the different expressions of competitiveness, from wanting to be the only baby in the family to looking down on the baby’s immaturity and taking pride in being the one who is big and strong. In reading this book, I found myself longing to be observed as closely and knowingly, to be accepted as totally, a sure sign of old and strenuously held back feelings welling up. This book gives permission to be who one is. It says to the child “You don’t need to feel only warm and cuddly feelings. You can be angry and sad and scared. We will help you with those feelings and we will still love you”. Just as importantly, it says the same thing to the adult reading the book to the child. In describing not only the child’s reactions to the new baby but also modeling the specific responses of a father who is attuned to the child’s emotional needs, the book offers gentle guidelines to parents struggling with their own feelings of protectiveness towards the new baby and dismay and irritation that the older child is not responding as they would hope. The book frames the unavoidable family conflicts engendered by the birth a new baby into the higher powers of the parents’ ability to contain and redirect strong feelings, and in doing so it reminds children and parents alike of something that is easy to forget — that feeling love often calls for patience and effort, but that the time love needs to emerge is well worth the wait.

The third book, “Go! Go! Maria!”, brings us the exuberance of the toddler years, with its sudden transitions between the giddiness of new achievement and the despair of unmastered tasks. Represented here in everyday scenes are the key acquisitions of the second year of life: discovering the body, autonomous locomotion, learning to talk, learning to play, practicing how to relate to others, the pleasures and tribulations of “no”, “me” and “mine”, and falling in love with everything the world has to offer whether it is within the bounds of the permissible or not — all conveyed through Maria’s joys and frustrations and the mirroring emotions experienced by Maria’s parents and her brother as they adapt to her unbound energy in exploration. Children love to hear stories of what they did when they were growing up. They feel themselves as the center of the universe, and in this book the image of Maria fills every page with the power of her self-discovery. By making Maria bilingual in English and Spanish, “Go! Go! Maria!” expands young children’s cultural horizons by acquainting them with children from a different ethnic group whose experiences of growing up are nevertheless basically similar. The book does not have a plot because life does not have a plot: Maria lives in the moment, and every moment is all there is for her.

This is a theme that all three books have in common. They all celebrate the treasures of being and of being with others as ends in themselves, with no ulterior purpose. In that sense, they are quietly revolutionary. We are living in a historical period when we and our children are under constant social pressure to learn always faster, to do more, to achieve more. Robie Harris gives permission to the children and to their parents to relish the magic of everyday life. That is the cornerstone of young children’s emotional growth. Everything else is commentary.