Lessons From Animals

A friend gave me a wonderful children’s book for adults called “Cat in the City” by author Julie Salamon.  Intended for 8 to 12 year olds it is a wonderful story that children will enjoy, with a level of sophistication that speaks to adults.  It is a story about friendship between animals, between animals and humans, a story about love and unexpected relationships.  For city lovers, music lovers and landmark lovers, there is much that is a special feast.  The author clearly loves all three and shares that special feeling in a way that is captivating.

One way this book is for adults is that the animals in it are distinctly human and pretty savvy ones at that.  Even though they can’t speak they communicate most effectively, especially with each other.  They seem to understand human language very well and interpret for each other what is going on.  Their lives and emotions play out against the lives of the human adults and children with whom they live – and the animals have pretty rich emotional lives themselves.

The hero of the story is a special cat called “Pretty Boy,” named by the human with whom a new dog friend lives.  Pretty Boy has many adventures that connect him with interesting humans and new animal friendships.  Through these adventures and relationships he develops a new sense of self, takes pride in his own abilities and most of all discovers the pleasures of belonging, as well as the capacity for independence.

Recognizing the messages intended for children in the adventures and relationships of Pretty Boy can cause one to wonder why animals are used so often to teach lessons in books for children.  Bruno Bettelheim, the renowned psychologist, writing about what he calls “The Uses of Enchantment”, while focused on fairy tales has interesting things to say about stories for children.  He points out that stories that seem completely unrelated to the reality of children’s lives can actually speak to the inner, unconscious struggles, nameless anxieties and even violent fantasies children experience in the process of growing up.

Through stories some of these unconscious struggles are able to come to awareness and worked through in imagination toward a positive resolution.  Bettelheim notes that parents often believe that children should be diverted from what troubles them and be exposed only to the sunny side of things.  We want children to believe that  all people are good rather than the fact that we all have the potential to be aggressive and selfish.  But children know that they are not always good and that even when they are they would prefer not to be.  This contradicts what they are told and makes a child a monster in his own eyes.

Maurice Sendak, author of “Where the Wild Things Are” along with many other children’s books, touches on this in response to the criticism that his books are frightening.  He writes somewhere that adults should never be told about the things children imagine – it would frighten them too much.

Bettelheim points out that fairy tales present the basic dilemmas of life in a clear, simple form.  The stories get across the message that struggling against difficulties is part of life.  If one does not back away but rather steadfastly meets unexpected hardships, one can master all obstacles and at the end emerge victorious.  In these stories, good and evil are presented concretely in the form of characters.  Children are readily able to distinguish between the two, and when the hero is the good guy who overcomes all obstacles, this is the character with which they want to identify.

In “Cat in the City”, many of these themes emerge.  Pretty Boy is the hero but through his relationships he learns many lessons.  He is attached to a young boy who loves music and hears him struggle with the disappointment of discovering that the notes he plays on the cello at first sound nothing at all like the admired teacher’s playing.  Although discouraged he sticks with it, dealing with criticism along the way and ultimately improves.  At the same time, Pretty Boy discovers he has a talent for wagging his tale to the exact beat of the music, is given much praise and develops a new side to his identity.

An important aspect of inner conflict in children’s development is their struggle with dependence and independence involving separation from parents.  Pretty Boy experiences this conflict, enjoying the comfort of being fed and cared for but also wanting to strike out on his own and show his own mettle. He also finds within himself an ability to do at times what is best for others rather than himself.

Traditional fairy tales may provide the six degrees of separation necessary for children to allow their fears and wishes to be brought nearer to the surface.  But the “Cat in the City” and its two degrees of separation brought by animals interaction with the adults in their lives, by encompassing both fantasy and reality, does a good job of speaking to children – while giving adults some important messages as well.