It was just one of those nights. No matter what hour the clock ticked away to, it all played out like a CD that wouldn’t stop skipping – the crying from our daughter’s room going on and on as the night stretched to early morning.
Fortunately for us, our son slept soundly through it all. For Meg and I, however, it was a constant struggle of trying anything and everything to soothe her – milk, cuddles, food, singing, touch, rocking, a little medicine thinking it was teething – all to no avail. No matter what we did, she would do nothing but scream. Not just a crying scream, but an angry scream like we’ve rarely heard.
We reached shortly after 2 in the morning when I felt completely out of options, and completely out of our minds. At this rate, I felt, no one in the house was going to sleep. Neither Meg nor I had yet to hit the pillow, and who knew how long our son’s sound sleep through it would last? So, in an act of desperation, I bundled up our 16 month old little lady in her coat and hood, put her in her car seat, and she and I went for an early morning drive.
Anywhere and everywhere along the open road was the map of our journey, through the streets of downtown, to the country routes of neighboring villages and towns.
Once we got moving, the savage beast was soothed, enjoying the sights and sounds outside her window, from the street lamps that passed us by to the lights of the theater marquee or the new clock tower downtown. In time, she was asleep, but attempts to park caused her to rustle and start to wake again, so I kept driving, her eyes once again closing, falling back into the arms of Morpheus, our routes sometimes repeating over and over again, to keep her that way.
Fueled from the start by a large McDonald’s coffee (the only place open at 2:30 in the morning in our area, I found, the lights upon every donut shop and cafe with a drive thru darkened), we saw our region as it slept off the worries of the previous day and, as the hours ticked by, prepared for a brand new day. The empty streets that were all ours at the start, by journey’s end hours later were beginning to fill with traffic as people hurried to their morning shifts of work.
Shortly after 6, we returned to the driveway, the sun’s appearance in the sky marking the end of our quest, and the start of our morning routine (albeit a much more caffeine-fueled one) for another day.
This past Valentine’s Day, our son and daughter each got cards in the mail from their grandparents. Inside our son’s card was a ten dollar bill. He immediately became very excited, with a wide smile and look of excitement on his face. I imagined that images of a new action figure or some type of toy was dancing through his head.
He pulled the money from the card, his smile still ear to ear, looked at Meg and I and said “I know exactly what I want to do with it!”
Here it comes. We braced ourselves for whatever store he’s earmarked this for already.
“I want to donate it to someone who doesn’t have a lot of money so that they can use it.”
Flabbergasted. The only way to explain our reaction as we stood there taking in the response that we completely did not expect.
Don’t mistake my surprise for anything but, as despite my shock, Meg and I were so incredibly proud to realize this is where our little guy’s heart lies. Trips down the toy aisle, looking through store ads, or the ubiquitous little mini catalogs that seem to come with many of his Imaginext action figures could often make us think that’s all he thinks about, point to each one he wants (and it’s usually the equivalent of, oh, all of them).
But here, faced with the reality of cash in his hand, he wanted to give it away, to help someone less fortunate than he and it meant the absolute world to see.
Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
During a 2008 talk at Stanford University, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany discussed about his research on “processes of social cognition, social learning and communication, and language in human children and great apes” and very notably, the idea of altruism and its natural occurrence in children.
According to Tomasello, children have an almost instinctual desire to help, inform and share, doing so without expectation or the desire for a reward.
“There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization,” Tomasello said during the discussion as chronicled by the Stanford Report.
As the children grow older, though, their spirit of cooperation becomes shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. As they become more aware of what’s around them, Tomasello says they also become more worried about what it means to be a member of a group.
“They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation,” he said. “But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others – their public reputation and self – as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves.”
In contrast, Tomasello’s studies showed that apes were in it mostly for themselves. Undergoing similar experiments as the children were, the apes had the ability to work together and share but instead chose not to do so. He says that while a child’s sense of guilt or shame might guide a decision to share candy with another child who helped them get it, the apes had no qualms about working with another to get a piece of food and then keeping it to themselves.
According to Tomasello, human beings have a sense of “we,” a shared purpose, a bond that he says explains even simple social norms such as what makes it rude to walk away from an activity with another person without any type of advance warning.
“This sense that we are doing something together – which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations – is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case,” Tomasello said.
Uniquely human. Yet it’s amazing how many of us, so uniquely human in our altruism at that early age, have it fade away as the years go on, focused more on how any given situation, person, or the world, can benefit us, rather than those around us. I think that we’re all guilty of it.
So what do we do? How do we help a child maintain that sense of heart and generosity? How do you foster it now so that they can keep it as they continue to age? And is there a way to turn back the dial on ourselves and shed the selfishness that for some come with age?
I have no idea. I wish I knew the answers.
What I do know, though, is how proud Meg and I are of the boy he is today and have no doubt he’ll continue making us proud for many years to come.
“Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive more youer than you.”
That comes from Happy Birthday To You, one of the myriad of books in the catalog of Dr. Seuss masterpieces that decorate many a bookshelf and have influenced any number of childhood, and foster a creativity across all ages.
And today, March 2, 2017 marks the 113th birthday of Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Geisel, as he was born.
You look quite terrific for one hundred thirteen,
the lessons from you, we still every day glean.
These days, it’s hard to think of a time before Seussian rhyming and characters like the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat weren’t part of our everyday culture. Words like Nook, and Grinch have become a part of our lexicon.
There is so much that could be talked about personally about Geisel, who was born to German immigrants in Springfield, Massachusetts. He experienced quite the share of discrimination and hate as a child as Americans fought Germany in the era of The Great War, now known as World War I. He lived on Mulberry Street, and it’s been said that on walks with his older sister, other children would throw bricks at them, spout hateful threats and call them names due to their heritage. It’s said he was the final scout in line to receive a medal when Theodore Roosevelt came to town, but by the time it was his turn, he received no medal but a lecture from Roosevelt. Some historians theorize that anti-German people within the town tampered with the medal count that day and believe that incident teamed with the screaming lecture from TR may have led to the classic Horton Hears a Who Line “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Throughout many, if not all of his tales, Geisel seems to have a common theme that resonates no matter our age – fairness, justice for what’s right, doing the right thing, and celebrating the differences among all of us.
Whether it’s Horton in Horton Hears a Who, trying to save the Whos that are on the head of the flower despite the other creatures of the jungle making life downright miserable and tortuous for him, the Sneetches learning that just because some have stars on their bellies and some do not does not mean that they’re truly any different from each other and can get along, or the importance of opening our eyes to what is around us and seeking out knowledge to better understand people, places and our shared world in I Can Read with My Eyes Shut, it’s all about learning to better understand each other.
So many of these books that we read as children, we now read to our own kids. A well-preserved copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish of mine now sits on my son’s bookshelf amid other classic Seuss outings as well as some newer editions by new authors influenced by his trademark style. Most notable of these newer entries is The Cat in the Hat Learning Library series, which our son adores, each book engaging young minds as the Cat and his rhymes teach about everything from bugs, to space, to money, or animals.
One of the running gags between my son and I are to suddenly take our conversations into rhyming territory, going back and forth, sometimes to a point where he ends up making up his own Seussian type words just to keep the rhyme going.
And while it’s all in good fun, it’s even better to know that some researchers say there’s more than just the silliness behind Dr. Seuss’ rhymes.
“The words that he made up are fun for children — they see the cleverness behind the word construct and the meaning of the word,” said Ann Neely, a professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee told Live Science in 2015.
It is true that some parents have concerns about the silly, made-up Seussian words, that it could lead to confusion in children, but Neely goes on to say that all that nonsensical jumble actually helps children on the path to reading, raising their awareness of the sounds that letters make.
“The words that he made up were often funny, and it helps children with their literacy skills later on as they’re learning to read if they’ve heard how language can be played with,” Neely also told Live Science.
She added that the predictable rhythm of the sentences also could play a large role in teaching children to read.
“That gave children confidence in their own reading ability,” Neely said. “In some ways, it’s like Mother Goose rhymes, in that when we say, ‘Oh, he’s like Humpty Dumpty,’ we know that it’s because ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.'”
Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss leaves a legacy that still carries on generation after generation, and as I say, it’s hard to imagine a world without his imagination, his doodles, his rhyme, and his wonderful way to make us all think about the world we share.
“Shout loud, I am lucky to be what I am! Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham! Or a dusty old jar of gooseberry ham!”
What’s your favorite Seussian tale?