Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is The Runaway Bunny's Mother Overprotective?

Yesterday's NY Times parenting blog featured an article called "Children's Books You (Might) Hate." It was a provocative post, generating over two hundred comments already. It lists a number of "creepy" children's books, including "The Giving Tree," "Love You Forever," "The Rainbow Fish," and "The Runaway Bunny." I agree about the first three, but I have a soft spot in my heart for "The Runaway Bunny." Maybe it's the rich color of the illustrations.

So here's my slightly tongue-in-cheek defense of "The Runaway Bunny" as a subtle and nuanced treatise on how parental development must continue in concert with a child's growth. It's a parable of how maternal love and protectiveness have to adapt as the child's search for independence becomes more sophisticated and appropriate.

We mothers need a lot of guidance in this. I always knew that letting go was going to be one of the challenges of motherhood. A friend of mine arrived home from the hospital after giving birth, and as she carried her newborn son across the threshold for the first time, she burst into tears. She cried to her husband, "In just eighteen years he'll be leaving us!"

When the Runaway Bunny first threatens to flee, the mother bunny reassures him that she'll come after him. That's appropriate: a small child needs to know that even if he's angry or naughty, his mother will still want him and love him. A child secure in his parents' love can grow.

Then the little bunny says he'll become a trout in a trout stream. I see him as a preschooler now, leaving his home and experiencing a peer group for the first time, entering the stream of the big world. His mother says she'll become a fisherman. She'll find him among all the others: even though he's one of many children at school, he's still her special child.

He threatens to become a rock on a mountain high above her, and she says she'll become a mountaineer to climb to him. We all face the time when our children surpass us in their knowledge of baseball or computers, their skill in art or in music, or even the beauty of their ideas. Here is a mother who promises to try to keep growing to rise to her child's level.

The little bunny says he'll become a crocus in a hidden garden. He's older now; he wants his privacy, but he hasn't yet blossomed into the person he will be. She promises to be a gardener. She'll nurture him and let him grow.

He says he'll become a bird and fly away, and she says she'll be the tree that he comes home to. This is just right: she's letting him try his wings in all sorts of ways, while still providing a safe refuge.

Then, in the next stage, she makes a mistake. He's older now, perhaps entering adolescence. He wants to become a sailboat on the ocean and sail away. Perhaps she's fed up with his aimlessness. Perhaps she sees him drifting in the wrong direction. She says she'll be the wind and blow him where she wants him to go. Who among us doesn't want to do this sometimes? We try to choose our children's friends and activities, and then we try to convince them to want what we want for them - Harvard or a career in the law or a diving scholarship or the honor roll.

But after this episode of backsliding, the mother bunny gets back on track. Her son offers to fly away on a flying trapeze. By now he's really an adolescent, sulky and distant, but still needy. She resolves to become a tightrope walker, to perform the difficult balancing act of meeting him where he is.

Then, all at once, this mental and spiritual journey into the future is over, and once again he's a little bunny, wanting a hug and something to eat and a warm place to stay. The mother bunny can stop worrying about the future and just enjoy the little son she has right now.

In my reading, the mother bunny accepts that someday her son will leave. Just not yet. She knows she'll be both sad and proud when that day comes.

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