When you write a children's book called A Rule Is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy, some eyebrows inevitably get raised in your direction. As a result, people might not come to you for parenting advice, but we say they're wrong about that.
For parents fearful of children run amok, our book sets off plenty of alarms, but one that has been brought to our attention — surprisingly several times — by interviewers and commenters is the part where our main character, Wild Child, proclaims that there will be no baths, ever again, forever. From our point of view, this is called a joke, but to anyone who mistakes the book for a gravely serious manifesto to indoctrinate children into the progressive leftie army of socialism, this is called questionable parenting. Even some leftie socialists have trouble with the bath thing, actually.
In presenting anarchy in context of a little kid, our book includes not just autonomy but also equality, responsibility, respect, and plenty of other nice things that keep a family peaceful. The book also contains some funny stuff.If you're attempting to make little kids laugh, you should speak to their concerns. In our experience, what does a kid find unfair about life? All those damn baths, that's what.
Among the anarchy-friendly parenting choices we've made over the years — we unschool, for instance — we let our sons skip quite a few baths. This was part of our long-term family negotiations. Every family has them, and they vary with the members. Rebellion is a group-specific pursuit, so while some little nonconformists might scream, "No baths ever!" we can imagine children in a vegan family chanting, "Hamburgers and mutton now!" and the kids of punk rockers proclaiming, "Cellos and bassoons forever!" That's what rebellion is all about, and kids are natural rebels. It's what they do.
Rebellion is the act of pushing for autonomy. The less autonomy you allow a kid, the more he or she has to rebel against. Conversely, if you hand everything entirely over to the kid's decision-making, things are going to get messy for everyone. Autonomy is a responsibility. If you teach a kid freedom to make his or her own choices, you'd better include lessons in empathy, respect, and community responsibility. The delicate balance of a child's individuality versus the family's peace works arm-in-arm for happiness. That is truly anarchy in the home.
This is where the confusion over the word anarchy comes in. Anarchy isn't about having no rules. It's about having no leaders, no authority figures. The rules are agreed upon by all members, and that means all members get to state what they believe to be the benefit or harm in, for instance, a kid not taking baths anymore. The parents don't have to be bosses. They can be mentors or guides, dispensing advice and helping the child understand why taking no baths ever again might not be a preferable choice, so that everyone comes to some middle ground about bath schedules.
These ideas are actually more benign than some of the celebrated nonconformists and troublemakers in children's literature in the past, which is riddled with various forms of rebellion on the part of child characters, as well as various animals and antiheroes. Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline is a prime example of a calm rebel. She plays by nobody's rules but her own, even if it does almost give Miss Clavel a stroke. For any book with a character named David being told no, there must be a counter argument named Max raging in an animal costume, being understood and accepted for his discontent.
The so-called grown-up characters are oftentimes no better. The hero of The Cat in the Hat, the actual Cat, introduces some much-needed chaos in the lives of the straight-laced children who, in turn, manage to teach the Cat about the middle ground and his responsibility to others. Mary Poppins may give the rules a lot of lip service, but she does an awful job of keeping things normal and under control. The kids love that. Willy Wonka is the dark rebel of this form, the real antihero. We're sure Mary Poppins never skipped a bath in her life, but Wonka?
Sometimes we wonder if, as a society, we have completely forgotten about Pippi Longstocking, the most glorious girl to grace the pages of any book. She made fools of schoolteachers and policemen, and said whatever she pleased whenever she pleased. She was a one-girl Occupy movement. She lived wrong by any traditionally defined civilized standards, and kids around the world adore her for it.
Thankfully we have moved past the era of Richard Scarry's Pig Will and Pig Won't, in which rebellion was sneakily manipulated in order to teach kids a lesson. What if you prefer Pig Won't? He's a lot more fun to read about. What if you think Pig Won't will grow up to be the interesting, creative pig of the family if he just has the right guidance, maybe the right teacher in school or a cool pig uncle? Having a brother who always does the socially accepted right thing doesn't help a complicated pig pull himself together. It's humiliating. It's just going to foster more rebellion. Someone needs to intervene in the Pig family's ordeal, give them some advice, show them that Pig Won't has potential, they just have to work to foster it and maybe instill in him some personal responsibility.
And it's not just little kids with whom freedom and individuality resonate. Grown-ups need a reminder after a hard day of being beaten down by the structures, rules, and limitations of society. Even if they aren't in control of every aspect of the world, grown-ups do have a say in their own lives and homes. They can live by their own rules. Grown-ups don't have to take baths either.
Teenagers also need a gentle tug toward responsible anarchy. After years of being whipped into acceptable order in school, graduation gives them an opportunity to examine what they really think and to choose a life that reflects those thoughts.
So don't come to us for parenting advice. See if we care! As consolation, we have two awesome, polite, intelligent sons who are thoughtful in their interactions with other humans and whose idea of fun isn't consuming, but creating.
We're going to say up front that, yes, we let them skip a lot more baths than many parents would. But when you meet our sons, that isn't what you notice. The point isn't that they skipped some baths — it's why they skipped some baths. That will be what you notice.
÷ ÷ ÷
Writer John Seven and illustrator Jana Christy collaborate often on children's books. Their latest is A Rule Is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy, and their previous book was the award-winning The Ocean Story. Upcoming in 2013 is Happy Punks 1-2-3: A Counting Story and A Year with Friends. John and Jana live in North Adams, Massachusetts. Find them online at johnandjana.com.
Books mentioned in this post
John Seven and Jana Christy is the author of A Rule Is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy