My parents read many books to me as a child, but there are two that really stick out due to their simple concepts that address complex themes. Both stories stress the anxieties surrounding a child’s development of autonomy. The first book is Heather Patricia Ward’s, I Promise I’ll Find You. The book is a comforting story about a mother’s promise to always be with her child. The second is P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? In this second one, a bird hatches while his mother is out of the nest. The story follows his continual quest for not only her physical presence, but his own identity as well.
The first book spoke to me, as a child, not only because of the content’s consoling message—which addresses separation anxiety between a child and their parent—but also because the material was interactive. The illustrations in the book correspond to the actions of the mother trying to locate her son in various and, often bizarre, scenarios. While reading each page, it’s up to both the mother and the reader to locate the little boy, whose figure is consistently hidden within the illustrations.
After re-reading both the stories, my developmental experience makes it easier to see the deeper meanings behind what seem to be simple and reassuring ideas. The mother of the first story is forced to recognize her son as an individual in the moment that he’s separated from her. When we’re younger, we are completely dependent on our parents or guardians. We associate protection and comfort with their presence. John Locke supports the importance of parental presence in his essay, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” He writes that children should be “kept as much as may be in the company of their parents, and those to whose care they are committed”. He goes on to say how the child will appreciate the parent more if all good things come from their presence.
The mother’s promise to always be with her child is supposed to be comforting, but we know that it’s not possible. At some point, the child has to develop on his or her own. Victor Strasburger suggests in his article, “Children, Adolescents, and Media,” that some of the “developmental hallmarks of adolescence” include identity formation and independence. Based on his research, adolescent independence can go both ways. It can allow the developing adolescent to make either good or unhealthy decisions. Either way, the adolescent is forced to develop a sense of autonomy.
In the story, the mother’s promise serves less in the literal sense of her constant presence, but more in the figurative idea of the confidence she has in the child. The lonesome child has the independence to create his own identity without his mother. The mother’s constant desire to find him, no matter where he is or what he becomes, reveals her appreciation and acceptance of his autonomy. This consequently gives him a feeling of security and the confidence to continue without her.
We see separation anxiety again within Are You My Mother? when the young bird is instead searching for his mother. The story was humorous to me as a child because the little bird assumed the identity of different animals and objects as he went around, wondering where and to whom he belonged. The bird had not yet experienced the pivotal moment of self-recognition since he had been denied identification with his mother. Locke asserts in his essay that children “better understand what they see than what they hear.” In order to identify himself as a bird, this little bird needs to see what he looks like. That’s where the presence of the mother comes into play, since she leads by physical—and moral—example.
William Blake also highlights the significant role that a mother’s presence plays in a child’s developmental idea of him or herself. In his poem, “The Little Black Boy,” we see the mother helping her child come to terms with his identity as an African American boy. Through her relation of God and his love, the boy transcends the confines of his identity as a “lesser” being.
As a child, I was unaware of the egocentric philosophies that some of my favorite books portrayed. I felt connected to them through their content and the comfort I received from reading them with my mom. Now it’s interesting to see the connections between each and how some of their deeper meanings transcend through the enlightenment and into the modern age. The idea of becoming independent from your parents is always a little frightening, even when you’re in college. What I like about these stories is that they address this slightly intimidating idea of autonomy in heartwarming and humorous ways.