Safety Lessons from The Cat in the Hat
Ah, your favorite tongue-twisting tale from childhood, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. A zany adventure of a brother, sister, a fish, two things and a cat with a hat. Now that you are a parent, I’m sure you’re reading it to you kids. Now a father, when I read it to my son, I notice a few red flags because I am my child’s protector. While most of us have never thought about it, there are some hidden, dangerous subtexts in this classic children’s book.
Stop for a moment and recall what you know of the story. What happens on that “cold, cold wet day?” A happy-go-lucky cat appears to help entertain two lonely kids and makes a whimsical mess. Then he cleans up his own mess seconds before being caught and all's well that ends well. While this is the jist of the story, along the way there are some troubling details. For instance, the Cat is an intruder.
Yep, the Cat is an intruder. Didn’t notice that before did you?
Yep, the Cat is an intruder. Didn’t notice that before did you? He doesn't knock on the door or ring the bell. The Cat bursts through the door with a “bump”. This whole beloved story is an account of a Cat who comes into a home with two unprotected children and begins to charm them to play the games he want’s to play. When he’s opposed, he ignores repeated requests to leave and continues to establish his control of the house. That’s a very circumspect view of the story from a protective father, I know. But it’s not inaccurate, is it?
I do not believe these details and subtexts to be intentional. They are used to create drama and move the plot along. Despite the intention, these red flag elements still remain. To better understand these unsettling details, we must consult another great author, Gavin de Becker.
Gavin de Becker is a bestselling author and is America’s leading expert on predicting and managing the threat of violence. He believes, and in my opinion proves, that violence can be predicted if you know what to look for. In his books The Gift of Fear and Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teens Safe (and parents sane), de Becker lays out seven behaviors that are warning signs of a potentially dangerous individual. He cites them as “survival signals” as these are clues to help a potential victim survive an encounter. The Cat exhibits three of the seven survival signals:
1) Discounting the word “No” - Ignoring that no means no in order to continue to try to force one’s will upon another.
2) Forced Teaming - a sophisticated manipulation coercing someone into feelings of unearned trust by being united by a predator
3) Charm and Niceness - being charismatic and well-meaning to get someone to do what what a predator wants. Being nice is a choice, not a character trait.
When I read The Cat in the Hat as a protective father, I now see these survival signals. These signals are key to the development and plot of the story but nonetheless they are showing our children that these dangerous behaviors are acceptable. As our children’s protectors we need to see these signals and educate our children about them.
1) Discounting the word “No”
This is the most blatant survival signal in the entire book. The Cat doesn't take “no” for an answer. While this may be a sales tactic, it’s a survival signal everywhere else. Multiple times the Cat ignores the Fish’s request to stop and leave the house. The Fish is the voice of reason in the story and is the Cat’s biggest opposition, so therefore the Cat must ignore him and charm the kids in order to play the games he wants to play.
Here is the best example: “But our fish said, ‘No! No! Make that cat go away! Tell that Cat in the Hat you do NOT want to play.’ He should not be here. He should not be about. He should not be here when your mother is out!” The Cat’s response? “Now! Now! Have no fear. Have not fear!’ said the cat. ‘My tricks are not bad,’ said the Cat in the Hat.” The cat discounts the Fish’s opposition and ignores the word “no”. Later the Fish continues, “You SHOULD NOT be here when our mother is out. You get out of this house!’ said the fish in the pot.” The Cat responds, “‘I will NOT go away. I do NOT want to go!’” The Cat does not stop and continues to ignore pleas to leave the house.
2) Forced Teaming
Since the Fish is the voice of reason in Seuss’ story, this puts him in direct opposition to the Cat. The Cat uses forced teaming with the kids to discount the Fish’s pleas for the cat to leave. It’s the Cat and the kids against the Fish or more simply fun verses responsibility. The children do not know what to say. They are in shock of their circumstances and have become compliant with the Cat’s antics thus siding with the Cat since they are not voicing any concerns. So the Cat spends most of his time charming the kids and mitigating the Fish to get his way.
3) Charm and Niceness
The Cat is very charismatic, he smiles, does tricks and promises fun games. What child wouldn’t be taken with him? The Fish sees that the Cat could cause trouble. Conversely, the Cat ignores the fish - keeping up his charm offensive with the children. On another level there is a balance at stake. Comply with the Cat and he is nice to you. Oppose the Cat and you are mitigated.
The Cat finally stops when the brother captures Things One and Two. He then says strongly, “Now you do as I say. You pack up those Things and you take them away.’” At this point the “nos” can’t be ignored, the teams have fallen apart and the kids are no longer under the charm of the Cat. The Cat has lost his control, he is forced to leave. The kids and the Fish have restored order and the intruder is gone.
I do not believe these details and subtexts to be intentional. They are used to create drama and move the plot along. Despite the intention, these red flag elements still remain.
I understand how children’s books work. Trust me, I’m trying to get one published. There is a willing suspension of disbelief for a story about a talking Cat to work. But all of that aside, the Cat still triggers de Becker’s survival signals that need to be understood by parents. I realize this is a timeless kids book written by a legend with no ill will intended. However the subtext of book remain and are not to be ignored. Parents need to understand that the actions of the Cat are, in reality, unacceptable. But small kids can’t tell the difference. They are only being shown that when faced with a loud, controlling individual, a bully, it is better to let them do what they want instead of immediately standing up for themselves and their safety.
I'm not suggesting you petition your kid's school library to ban it. Continue to read The Cat in the Hat, it’s a classic. I will suggest that you read the story in light of this new perspective. Then use this book as a teaching tool. Talk to your kids about how the behavior of the Cat was not good. For example, help them see that when they say “no” that others need to respect it. Gavin de Becker often writes that the word “no” is a complete sentence. There is no explanation needed. If someone wants you to do something and your response is no, that is all you need to tell them. A person who ignores your discomfort, your concerns and your opinion has a motive. Be very cautious of a person who treats you this way.
I will suggest that you read the story in light of this new perspective. Then use this book as a teaching tool.
Another lesson to discuss is the children’s silence. Brother and Sally stay silent when the Cat starts to play his games. They are in awe of the smooth talking Cat. Perhaps if the siblings had voiced their concerns earlier, they could have chosen a game they’d all feel comfortable with and Things One and Two wouldn’t have wrecked the house.
Continue to enjoy this book with your children. It’s a fun read. But now you know there is a deeper lesson to Dr. Seuss’ words. Let your kids know that this is a silly book and there is a lot to learn from The Cat in the Hat.