Other than honeydew melon and war, whining is easily the worst thing ever. I mean, complaining is bad enough, but to voice one’s grievances in the timbre of a dental drill warrants a consequence of the highest order. So when my kids start up in their mosquito voices about how unfair life is, I don’t take away toys or issue a time-out. Instead, I like to sit them down for a little storytime with these five cautionary tales. At best, these will make children more compassionate and grateful. At worst, they’ll silence them with “schadenfreude”—that German concept of twisted delight in someone else’s misfortune.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm
At our house, we have a 1954 copy of this book that’s embossed with ravens and warlocks. Any of the classic fairy tales within it serve as good reminders of how lucky today’s kids actually are, but one of my personal favorites is the tragically warped “Mother Hulda.” It’s the story of a widow who has two daughters; “one was pretty and industrious and the other was ugly and lazy. And as the ugly one was her own daughter, [the widow] loved her much the best, and the pretty one was made to do all the work, and be the drudge of the house.”
As is the case in many fairy tales, this one involves a spinning wheel and child labor and bleeding hands. It also involves the pretty laborer jumping into a well out of despair and regaining consciousness in another world—once again as a maid. Eventually, the pretty daughter returns home, blessed with riches thanks to her competent housework, so the widow sends out the ugly daughter to do the same. Except the ugly daughter is lazy and ends up having a kettle of tar dumped on her. Tar that never comes off. Not her whole, entire life.
So? Kids? Who wants to empty the dishwasher?
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig
Most of us are familiar with this haunting classic—the tale of a little donkey named Sylvester who finds a magic pebble that grants wishes. What starts as an exciting, fantastical tale—with Sylvester wishing for sunshine and warts removed—quickly turns dark when he’s confronted by a hungry lion and accidentally wishes to become a rock. Which he does.
From there the story continues with Sylvester as a giant, mute boulder in a field all alone. The seasons change, his parents grieve what they assume is his death, and Sylvester is trapped, cold and hopeless, while coyotes howl and search parties give up.
Thankfully, his parents finally have a picnic on this boulder and Sylvester comes back to life, but by then, most of us readers are so traumatized we pledge to NEVER wish for anything again.
This one teaches kids to be happy with what they have. And also to never pick up a rock.
The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
All of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books teach perseverance and resourcefulness, but this particular installment in the series is hard for me to shake. Like the title suggests, it’s about the longest weather in recorded human history—I think maybe 36 months of blizzards—or at least that’s what it seems like. Chapter after chapter details the dwindling firewood and bread dipped in watery tea and chapped hands twisting straw and the frightening anemia of the youngest daughter.
This is a fun one to read children when they won’t stop whimpering about who got more sprinkles on his frozen yogurt. I don’t know, kids. GOOD LORD! Just be glad I don’t have to burn your bunk beds for warmth. Now. Who wants salt pork for dinner?
Hello, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald
Oh, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, that plump and lovable lesson-teacher of yore, who has a cure for almost every childhood condition. No, I’m not talking about strep and lice and stomach bugs. I’m talking about show-offs and crybabies and bullies and slowpokes. These books are really fun for both kids AND parents to read, because the “personality disorders” are so relateable and the cures are so outrageous.
My personal favorite in this book is “The Whisperer,” which describes the fate of two hateful little girls who spend most of their days whispering about classmates. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle prescribes some Whisper Sticks, which render the girls completely speechless whenever they try to gossip. Ultimately, this cures the girls of their ills, but what might be most delightful about this story is how beautifully Betty MacDonald writes. As in, a character’s voice was so quiet it sounded “like somebody brushing sugar off a shelf.” Or “her words came out a soft whish like the rustle of a silk petticoat.” Also? Betty MacDonald gives her characters great names. In this tale, the most popular boy in the class is named Corinthian Bop. COME ON. That is brilliant writing, folks.
“The Veldt,” by Ray Bradbury
I first read this short story in fifth or sixth grade. It’s about a modern-age family that lives in a technologically advanced home of the future called the Happy-life Home. It’s a soundproofed, climate-controlled environment that provides clothing and food and soothing music and a state-of-the-art children’s nursery that becomes whatever the children, Peter and Wendy, imagine—Wonderland, Oz, Aladdin’s world, or, in this case, an African veldt.
As this troubling story progrsses, the veldt becomes more and more realistic, as technology takes over and the Hadley family realizes they’ve lost control of their sci-fi home. Ultimately, the lions eat the parents, George and Lydia Hadley, while the children look on remorselessly.
This book terrorized me as a child, but now I’m realizing it’s even more horrific to read it as a parent. This is a good one to remind the whole family of the dangers of always being “plugged in.” Or to pick up when you don’t feel like taking everyone to the zoo.
What are some cautionary tales you like for whiners?