There are books for children and books for parents about children – especially on how to raise them. But then there are books written for children that are really for parents – even though they may buy them for, or to read to, their children. A wonderful example of such books is a new one by Julie Salamon called “Mutt’s Promise,” an adventure story about a brave dog and her puppies.
While Salamon’s more recent book, “Cat in the City” is a children’s book, she is widely known for her award winning books for adults such as “Wendy and the Lost Boys” and “The Devil’s Candy.” Although children undoubtedly will be captivated by the story she tells in “Mutt’s Promise,” the themes that unfold speak to central issues encountered by parents as they raise their children.
Young children who appear still governed by their instincts and the pleasure principle may at times seem more like animals than adult humans. Becoming civilized means that the primitive, animal like qualities of young children have to be brought under control or tamed. Children themselves feel an affinity to animals and adults often use animals in stories as a way of promoting the socializing process that is a responsibility and challenge for parents.
Many of children’s life experiences, problems they face, and things required of them, are presented through stories about animals. Becoming socialized presents difficulties for children, and they can identify with situations the animals are in, and learn from the animals’ solutions. Children can enjoy and identify with the animal behavior in these stories while maintaining a safe distance because it is not about them.
At the same time, a book like “Mutt’s Promise” provides lessons for parents as they encounter some of the same difficulties socializing children from the adult side. The story highlights opposite viewpoints about learning to control behavior, which might be thought of as education and training. Parents struggle with these two approaches that involve different kinds of responses to behavior. The differences emerge so clearly in this story because we tend to think in terms of training animals while teaching children.
Mutt gives birth to four puppies who early on show different personalities that emerge in the course of the story and are treated accordingly by their mother. The puppies develop in a loving environment in which they have freedom to explore but in which limits become clear. They learn about potential dangers such as bigger animals to be stayed away from. They learn to do what the humans in their life require because of the desire to please them and to win their love.
As the story unfolds two of the pups end up in a puppy mill where they receive a different kind of education. Now the training to behave in certain required ways involves harsh punishment, food deprivation and primarily fear. They do learn to behave as ordered but also lose their spirit and their personalities change,
These are extremes in puppy/child rearing and most parents do not abuse their children. But parents do struggle with the role of punishment in bringing about desired behavior and often search for short cuts to end undesirable behavior. Education takes time – particularly as young children begin to assert themselves, and parents as well as children must learn to respect each other’s wishes as part of learning how to live together.
A second major theme in this book is that of attachment, the theory introduced by John Bowlby, the British psychologist, who described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis – a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. A great deal has been written about the need for a primary bond with a caregiver as critical to later development.
In this story, we see how the primary relationship the puppies had with their mother gives them the strength to survive incredible hardship and suffering. The attachment between Mutt and the puppies is strong and they resist the idea of leaving her. What is striking however, is the role the mother dog plays in helping her children separate and begin to go out on their own. We think – sometimes negatively – of children breaking away. This story clearly depicts the mother’s role in letting go – often more difficult for parents than for their children.
Both children and parents can learn from “Mutt’s Promise.” Children can learn about independence and courage. Parents can learn ways to help them achieve it.