For those of us juggling caring responsibilities (working parents of toddlers, I salute you), these past few weeks have taken spinning plates to a whole new level. On the plus side, many of us have become even more adept at multitasking. Discussing strategic communications whilst hanging out the washing is my speciality…
This strange time, where family and work intertwine, has got me thinking about all the wonderful fables and stories we share with our children. The tales that stand the test of time are powerful because of the underlying messages that are woven into the fabric of the story. They are more than words on the page. They hold sway because of the way they make our children, and us for that matter, feel. More often than not, the lasting stories that are passed from generation to generation guide us as to how we can overcome adversity, and live well together.
And so, in the spirit of the work/family fusion that is the new normal, here’s a round up of children’s stories that get to the heart of this moment and help to guide us as to how we should be communicating the unfolding Covid-19 saga:
In 2007, Shirley Hughes’ heartwarming story, Dogger, was voted the UK’s favourite Kate Greenaway Medal-winning book of all time. My parents read it to me countless times as a child, and I, in turn, have read it umpteen times to mine. The moment when Bella swaps the teddy she won in the raffle to replace Dave’s lost toy ‘Dogger’ is an act of sweet generosity and kindness. It’s imprinted on our memory because of the way it makes us feel. We can all identify with the pain of losing a precious, much-loved possession, and the flooding sense of relief when it is returned, particularly through such trying circumstances.
The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, refers to such acts of goodness as ‘moral elevation’. In his words: ‘I have deﬁned elevation as a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.’ The key is in the final sentence: It’s not just coronavirus that’s contagious, our behaviours are too. As Haidt describes, ‘elevation is particularly interesting because of its social beneﬁts – its power to spread, which could improve entire communities … frequent good deeds may have a type of social undoing effect, raising the level of compassion, love, and harmony in an entire society.’
This notion of ‘behaviour contagion’ reminds me of another enjoyable tale. Have you heard the Indian allegorical fable, Monkey-See, Monkey-Do? Well, are you sitting comfortably? It goes something like this:
There once was a man who was going to the market to sell hats. There once was a man who was going to the market to sell hats, but when walking through the forest his cart upended and all his hats spilled about and around. Suddenly a band of monkeys descended onto the forest floor and they took the hats high up into the trees. The hat-seller waved at the monkeys telling them to give back his hats; they waved back. He shouted and screamed at the monkeys; they chattered and screamed back. He jumped up and down in desperation; the monkeys bounced up and down, high up in the trees. Finally, realising he would no longer be able to sell his hats at the market, the man took off his own hat and in a fit of frustration flung it onto the forest floor. Just then, all the hats came floating down through the trees. The man, delighted with the turn of events, picked up all the hats and hurried off to the market to sell his wares.
Right now, sharing stories of kindness and goodness, and living out our values, has never been more important. Whether it’s stories of refugees cooking and delivering daily free lunches for medical personnel (check out this IMIX blog for more acts of kindness) or young leaders telling us how proud they are of the people who are keeping the country going, we need to celebrate and amplify the fact that #KindnessIsContagious.
My care is your care
A.A. Milne’s timeless creation of Winnie the Pooh is a true classic. But it’s the interactions between the characters in the story that are so captivating, and draw us into the world he has created. Christopher Robin adores his ‘silly old bear’ and Winnie the Pooh looks up to Christopher Robin. Piglet and Pooh depend on one another. They all respect the wise Owl, despite his shortcomings. Rabbit, and all Rabbit’s friends and relations, come together to rescue Pooh from getting stuck in Rabbit’s front door. Poor, melancholic Eeyore is loved and embraced, his grumblings forgiven. Kanga cares for her baby Roo and when Tigger – the newcomer – comes along Kanga extends her care to him too: ‘“Well, look in my cupboard, Tigger dear, and see what you’d like.” Because she knew at once that, however big Tigger seemed to be, he wanted as much kindness as Roo.’ She goes on to take Tigger into her home – adopting him as one of her own: ‘Which explains why he always lived at Kanga’s house afterwards, and had Extract of Malt for breakfast, dinner and tea.’
The current Covid-19 saga will be defined by the extent to which we can strengthen the bonds of mutuality, empathy and care in our society. Could it really be that #EmpathyIsTheNewMindfulness? The reality of this situation is: we are all in this together. By caring for everyone, we care for ourselves and our loved ones – my care is your care. This means looking out for the vulnerable in our society. It means acknowledging the fundamental role that carers play in making our world go round (leading the field on this is the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the US). And it means recognising that whether you’re the Prime Minister, or a newcomer in our society, your care matters, and it is inextricably tied to that of others.
I was captivated when I discovered Cressida Cowell’s glorious story: How to Train your Dragon. For those of you uninitiated, here’s a brief synopsis, based on the film which is slightly different to the book:
The Viking islanders of Berk are at war with marauding dragons, which take livestock and damage property. The islanders respond by fighting the dragons – a classic tale of them and us. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is the son of Stoick the Vast, a Viking chief. Hiccup is thrust into dragon-fighting school and is expected to become a warrior, who can prove himself as a dragon slayer, a true Viking, just like his father. Instead, he befriends an injured dragon and discovers that they have misjudged the species. As it turns out, they can work together and help one another. Then, when the island of Berk is threatened by a highly dangerous and evil creature – the Red Death – the islanders and the dragons work together to defeat it. They don’t come out unscathed. Hiccup’s dragon loses his wing and Hiccup loses his leg. But, with a wing contraption for the dragon and a prosthesis for Hiccup they go on to chart a new era, with islanders and dragons living together in harmony.
It’s a classic tale of symbiosis and synergy – and a powerful one at that. It translates pretty well to our current state of affairs. The more we become polarised and fragmented, the less able we are to respond to the really pernicious threat which is at risk of hurting us all – currently the extreme far-right. The political scientist and writer of The Authoritarian Dynamic, Karen Stenner, describes the dangers of polarisation and activating the group of people she calls ‘authoritarians’. Neatly summarised by Jonathan Haidt, as follows:
‘In times of low moral threat, when they perceive that the country is relatively unified and the moral order is not being subverted, they are not particularly intolerant (Stenner finds). But, when they perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems (to them) to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour, it’s as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.” So it’s not just rising immigration and diversity that has activated American authoritarians — it may be our rising political polarization itself, which has activated and energized a subset of the electorate.’
What all of this tells us is that we need to find ways to come together at this time and remind ourselves of all that we share. It’s encouraging to note that the term ‘shared humanity’ has been used by people and organisations from a range of political persuasions, whether it’s story-sharing organisation StoryCorp in the US: ‘We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.’ Or the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock: “It’s because we are all human that we are susceptible to coronavirus and it is our shared humanity that means we will pull together to defeat it.”
I’ll admit, at first there is a risk here of sounding overly Utopian. Of course there will always be tensions and challenges in the way we live together. In reality, we need to aim for Shared Ground. But, in my view, the following steps are paramount:
- We need to be extremely cautious about highlighting and lamenting polarisation, unless we have anything positive and constructive to say about how to overcome it. Studies of polarisation and polling that highlight anxieties are helpful to take the temperature of what the public thinks and feels, but we need to be mindful of how negative perceptions are received when communicated to a larger audience. The danger is that they go on to inflame existing tensions and create a sense of fatalism, leading to greater anxiety.
- We need to do everything we possibly can to remind ourselves of all that we share and to build, A Larger Us, as Alex Evans, author of The Myth Gap and director of the Collective Psychology Project so eloquently sets out.
- A big part of this will be achieved by listening deeply and carefully, and then sharing and celebrating stories that highlight hope, togetherness, unity, shared ground and shared humanity.
Notes of caution
We tell our children cautionary tales for a reason. We are all at risk of being tripped up, misled and duped – adults as much as children. Sometimes this is purposeful trickery (the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood), sometimes misguided (think Toad in The Wind in the Willows). The absolute pinnacle of a cautionary tale is The Emperor’s New Clothes. It needs no introduction and we can’t help but marvel at it every time. How could they be so stupid we tell ourselves, all the while wondering – could I be duped like that? Heavens, the embarrassment!
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a powerful tale because of the way it makes us feel. It is a useful reminder of the need for caution. There’s an emerging sense of ‘not wanting to waste a good crisis’, but we also need to be thoughtful and mindful at this point. We need to remember how important it is to listen carefully, defer to people with lived experience, remember that sometimes some things are best left unsaid, or at least best said at the right time, and keep questioning our own actions and those of others. Perhaps the best advice here is to follow this mantra:
- Listen carefully
- Follow your gut
- Ask questions
- Share stories
And so, when the final chapters begin to close on this epic saga (see here for more on how Covid-19 is an unfolding story and we can shape the narrative) what are we expecting to change? How will we all be different as a result?
Again, we can turn to children’s stories to find out more about how a profound experience can change us, often for the better. I was tempted to launch into The Hobbit at this point – a journey of self-discovery, triumph over adversity, heroic actors and a final battle changing the world for the better, but then I remembered we can’t actually leave our houses. So, I’ve settled on something less epic, but with a tremendously important message at its heart. So here goes, a summary of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s ‘The Squash and The Squeeze’ (at this juncture I’d like to point out that my children are somewhat bemused that mummy is working, surrounded by their books…)
A little old lady lives all by herself when a wise old man hears her grumble and grouse that there’s not enough room in her house. She asks the man to help her please, as her house is a squash and a squeeze. So the wise old man suggests that she takes in her hen, then her goat, then her pig, then her cow. It’s utter mayhem (Julia Donaldson makes this bit rhyme much better). By this point the old lady is down on her knees, won’t the old man help her please? And so he tells her to take out her hen, goat, her pig, then her cow. And by the end? Well, you guessed it: there’s no need to grumble and no need to grouse, there’s plenty of room in her house. The story ends and the old lady is full of frolics and fiddle-de-dees: it’s no longer a squash and a squeeze.
The situation we’re experiencing right now is utterly crazy and it feels like we are taking more and more in and groaning under the pressure of it all. We all thought Brexit was a lot to contend with, and now, really, a global pandemic? But, I do wonder whether, when our situation goes back to normal, will we just carry on as we’ve always done? Or will we appreciate more of what we have and acknowledge the tremendous strength that lies in our communities, our bonds with our friends and neighbours and the love and care that we are capable of showing to one another.
The final chapter
This Covid-19 saga is a nightmare for many and we need to tell stories that illustrate that fact. But we can’t just rely on stories of vulnerability and distress in the hopes that people will sit up and listen. Yes, those stories deserve to be told, and must be shared, but they also need to be interwoven with elevating stories, caring stories and unifying stories. If in doubt, bear in mind that Mary Poppins wouldn’t have been half as popular if the whole story was about ‘feed the birds’. It’s part of the story, but not the whole story. Instead, we need to look to the future and think about how we are going to change our lives for the better once this saga is over. #LetsGoFlyAKite…