My son has recently become enamored with the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series. Laura Numeroff’s stories are sweet and zany and capture a momentum that feels very well-suited (and reflective of) toddler life. And Felicia Bond’s iconic illustrations bring succor to this tired mama’s soul. When my son hands me a copy of If You Give a Pig a Pancake each night, and then gives my wife If You Give a Moose a Muffin, I settle in to flip through the book on my own before he asks me to read it. There’s comfort in the rhythm of the story even for adults. But I recently noticed something about the book: there’s an element of parental Schadenfreude here.
When was the last time you read one of these children’s books? In the series, each of the children—Oliver, Piper, etc. (names derived from the animated series, which is delightful)—find themselves faced with an animal—Mouse, Moose, Pig, Dog, and Cat. And these animals take those kids for a ride. You know the drill. One request leads to another, and another, and another.
As I flip through If You Give a Pig a Pancake, I wonder at my son’s habit of only giving me Pig’s book, and only giving my wife Moose. It’s always the same, and whenever we try to mess with him by switching books, he always switches them back. At first, we thought he saw similarities. Like Pig, I tend to hop from one overly-ambitious project to another. And I love maple syrup. Like Moose, my wife is fun, always ready for a game, but also cozy. She also fixes things. And when we think of those similarities, it’s pretty cute.
The Dark Side of Cuteness
But there’s another element at play here, and I see it in the kids. The animals run those kids ragged. By the end of the book, all these children can do is sleep while their animal snacks on yet another treat. The relentless requests of an animal upon a child mirror so accurately the demands of a toddler upon a parent. Their quick shifts in attention and activity, their grand schemes, their disregard for mess and destruction, and their insistence on snacks—Mouse, Pig, Moose, whatever, they’re all toddlers. And those kids—those kids are the parents. Those kids are us.
For a moment, I take glee in watching it play out. This is where that parental Schadenfreude comes into play. Yeah, Pig, I think, take those pictures, ask for wallpaper, stamp those postcards. There’s a joy in watching a toddler-avatar exhaust an unsuspecting child.
But then, I look again. Pig’s kid is Piper. And I wonder if it’s not just that Pig reminds my son of me, but if Piper does too. As Pig tears through the house—from bathtub to tap dancing to postcards to treehouse—Piper is dispatched on errands, asked for assistance, and is constantly carrying things, trying to stem the tide of destruction before she finally collapses into a wheelbarrow of postcards and lets Pig play. She is tired, by story’s end, but she’s still game.
Schadenfreude to Mom Overjoyed
Schadenfreude is said to have sub-types, and one of those sub-types is justice-based: we want to see comeuppance play out in situations where we feel we have been dealt a bad hand. No matter whether it makes me a bad parent or not, I’m here to tell you: there’s nothing just about parenting a toddler. They knock the wind out of you, bust your lip with their heads, or rip the pages out of your book? They don’t care, and you can’t even be that mad because they’re so little. So when we see it play out for someone else, there’s a glee to it, a feeling of like, yeah, kid, you deal with this shit now while I sit here and read a book.
But there’s a journey through that feeling—parenthood is made up of millions of journeys through feelings all day every day. Because that moment where I come to believe my son sees me as patient and fun and amazing and safe and helpful—that he sees me as both Pig and Piper—is magical and sweet and leaves me feeling warm and suddenly not caring so much about all the scratches he’s put on our furniture.
And if he associates me with maple syrup? All the better.