A Defiant Daughter, or a Runaway Bunny?
An recent essay about Margaret Wise Brown may help answer this question.
Posted February 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- A new essay about Margaret Wise Brown can inspire us to think differently about our own spirited and challenging daughters.
- Brown, brash, volatile, stubborn, and extreme as a child, revolutionized the world of young children's books.
- Brown's eventual adult accomplishments can help us be less anxious about a spirited and challenging child.
Is your daughter bold and brash? Mercurial and volatile? Does she have an innate stubborn streak and tendency toward extremes? Does she seek (and create) heightened experiences? Is she delightful and surprising but also exhausting and, at times, hard to be with?
This describes some young girls I am working with in my practice and also — apparently as a child as well as an adult — Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, and other classic children’s books. I was inspired by Anna Holmes’ recent New Yorker essay about Brown. Holmes, Brown’s biographers, and people who knew her personally describe this creator of young children's picture books as having all these attributes when she was growing up – bold, brash, mercurial, volatile, stubborn, extreme – and more.
Holmes tells us that Brown had a “terrible temper” and a “compulsion for ignoring the rules." As a child, and as an adult, she “refused to be bound by law and order“ and “constantly pushed boundaries." Sound like anyone you know?
According to Holmes’s reporting, Brown "sometimes held her breath until she turned blue, prompting a Nanny to plunge her head into a tub of ice-cold water.” Such "dunkings," according to one of Brown’s biographers, apparently had “no lasting effect on Margaret’s innate stubborn streak." Ever respond to your challenging daughter in a dramatic and extreme way – to no avail? I am not recommending plunging your daughter’s head into ice water. I can, though, understand what might make you want to.
Holmes relates that Brown counted “among her closest companions a cat, a collie, two squirrels, and dozens of rabbits. After one of the rabbits died, Brown skinned it.” According to her sister, Brown joked about becoming a “lady butcher." Ever worry about your daughter’s future?
Holmes’s research finds that Brown herself told a former teacher she felt like “a bunch of peas that weren’t cooked yet” but “were doing a lot of whirling about in the kettle.” Someone who knew Brown as a young adult and referred to her as “Little Miss Genius” said that Brown once told her that the temperament that helped her to write beautiful children’s books could also make her profoundly unhappy. Someone who knew her as a friend and romantic partner later in life suggested, “She was so many different people it was hard to pin her down.” Again, sound familiar?
So what are some helpful ways to parent such a (spirited) child? Some of what Brown said about herself and her creative process, what drew her to writing books for young children and change the children’s book world, gives us some clues. According to Holmes, Brown once wrote in a notebook: “At five we reach a point not to be achieved again." Holmes adds, “In a paper on the topic (Brown) argued that a child of that age enjoys a ‘keenness and awareness’ that will likely be subdued out of them) in later in life.” A psychologist might say that Brown is, perhaps, describing herself here — her own experience as a spirited young child, and her struggle to hold onto the ‘keen’ and ‘aware’ parts of herself in the adult world.
The lessons of Margaret Wise Brown and her life for parents of these kinds of daughters might include: Don’t be overly anxious about, don’t subdue but instead nurture and guide, and certainly don’t try to kill and skin, these parts of your daughter. Instead, prize these parts of who she is.
Help her find people, a place, and a path in life that fit who she is. She will likely need a mentor (Brown had the educator and scholar Lucy Sprague Mitchell), a place (Brown learned about children and teaching at the Bank Street School), and a career that will embrace and appreciate her many strengths, forgive weaknesses, and help her to find, as Holmes writes, “a new kind of magic in the work-a-day world."
A defiant and tantrumming child version of Brown grew into an adult who “revolutionized” children’s picture books, was “one of the most prolific writers of stories for the very young,” and has been called “the laureate of the nursery." I am not proposing that your daughter will, or that you should expect her to, accomplish anything close to this much as an adult. I in fact strongly recommend against having or conveying these kinds of expectations. I am, though, inviting you to worry less about her and her future.
Perhaps be more like the mother rabbit in Runaway Bunny. Prize your daughter’s needs for autonomy, effectiveness, and control. Calmly and non-judgmentally set some, but not too many, limits. Help her find her people and place in the world. Perhaps most importantly, be there when she turns to you to meet her needs for security and connection. And when she does? Perhaps offer her a carrot.
Holmes, A. (2022). The Fairy-Tale War: How Margaret Wise Brown revolutionized picture books. The New Yorker, February 7th, pp. 16-22
Brown, M. W. (2017). The Runaway Bunny (Revised Edition). New York: Harper Collins.