Dr. Seuss is a great asset to grandparents teaching the young

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, October 13, 2019

Most writing about aging holds that one of the great blessings of the bonus years is grandparenting.  Now that we have two granddaughters, with the older turning four and the younger turning two, we share those views.

Fortunately, our granddaughters live down the road in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, D.C., so we see them at least once a week, often at our home in Annapolis.

Of course, their visits are constrained by strict house rules that are displayed on the wall of our kitchen to remind the grands that there are limits.

Nana’s House Rules read as follows:  Grandkids welcome – no invitations required.  Parents by appointment.  Expect to be spoiled.  What happens on Mainsail Drive stays on Mainsail Drive. Play ‘chase’ and ‘monster’ with Papa. Dessert from Nana comes anytime with a ‘please’.  Don’t resist hugs and kisses.  Enjoy storytelling. Sleepovers welcome. Bedtime negotiable. Kitchen open 24 hours.  Always have fun.

Though we enjoy every minute of regular visits by our granddaughters, none is more interesting or enjoyable than reading or making up stories.  Either way, you can witness, almost on a weekly basis, a growing vocabulary, increasing understanding, impatience when they know a really good page is coming next, and irritation if you skip a page or abbreviate a story because, let’s face it, you’re tired.

As Dr. Seuss – a.k.a Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) – might have said “Youre never too oldtoo wacky, too wild, / to pick up a book and read to a child.”

True that!  We especially enjoy reading books to our grands, as do their parents.  As a result, our respective homes are running over with children’s books.

Though I would be hard put to know where a specific book is located, the children know.  They know exactly, and each night they sift through toy boxes, closets, sofa cushions and even bookshelves to retrieve the nightly quota of 4-5 books to be read to them as part of a bedtime ritual.

After several years of reciting a variety bedtime stories – such as “The Giving Tree”, “The Little Engine that Could” or “Chadwick the Crab” – I have come to appreciate that many contain important morality tales that young people once received in a church, synagogue or other religious institution – or from reading Aesop’s Fables or a McGuffey Reader.

Cat in the Hat book cover

I am especially impressed with the whimsical stories and fanciful drawings by Dr. Seuss.  Who can’t remember “The Cat in the Hat”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”? 

Seuss has been around for a long time.  Indeed, Mary Sue and I read his imaginative rhyming stories to our own children as they were advancing from diapers to tricycles.  His principles and propositions are exemplary:

  • From Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person no matter how small. 
  • From Happy Birthday to You!:“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
  • From The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” 
  • From Yertle the Turtle: “I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, but down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.” 
  • From Horton Hears a Who: “So open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!” 

But now that I’m reading children’s books again – a few for the 30th or 40th time – I am seeing other values, propositions and opportunities for conversation that I did not see the first time around.

Dr. Seuss quote: "Why fit in when you were born to stand out?"

Consider a Seuss creation – “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”– for an older child transitioning from grade school to middle school or graduating from high school.

Oh the Places You'll Go Book cover by Dr Seuss

Seuss writes: Congratulations! / Today is your day. / You’re off to great places! / You’re off and away! / You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself any direction you choose. / You’re on your own. And you know what you know. / And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

After more of the same, Seuss continues with “You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. / You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. / Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. / Wherever you go, you top all the rest.”

At first you might think you’re channeling a Frank Sinatra, “I’ll-Do-It-My-Way” philosophy or the trope of an inspirational luncheon speaker, but Seuss quickly reminds his reader that life’s not all wine and roses and you don’t control all its levers.

That’s when he adds: “Wherever you go you will top all the rest. / Except when you don’t. / Because, sometimes you won’t. / I’m sorry to say so, but, sadly, it’s true / that Bang-ups / and Hang-ups / can happen to you.”

Seuss goes on to write that when you get in a fix, your friends may abandon you; that you get into slumps that are often hard to get out of – or, in Seuss-speak, “Un-slumping yourself / is not easily done.”

These are all realistic observations about life.  Not Pollyannaish, but also neither gloomy nor cynical.  Instead, he writes later on, “But on you will go / though the weather be foul. / On you will go / though your enemies prowl…/…On and on you will hike, / And I know you’ll hike far / and face up to your problems / whatever they are.”

Seuss concludes by advising, “So be sure when you step. / Step with care and great tact / and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. / Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. / And never mix up your right foot with your left. / And will you succeed? / Yes! You will indeed! / 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.”

Dr. Seuss provides some pretty good life lessons and insights, amplified by quirky cartoons that reinforce important messages. Though at first glance a lot of it seems like nonsense, Seuss himself said, “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.”  

As for the grandparents, Seuss reminds us that “To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you are the world.”