Re-reading “The Ugly Duckling”

I have a problem with the word ‘ugly’. It’s an extremely negative word. I find it demeaning and insulting. For the lack of a better word, I find it, well, ‘ugly’. In a world divided by prejudice and popular perception of what is beautiful, there is little tolerance for what is not ‘beautiful’. And in such a world I have trouble reading The Ugly Duckling to my son. I am sure I don’t want him to grow up with a notion of what is ugly and what not.

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Just who hasn’t read this children’s classic by Hans Christian Andersan? I grew up reading various abridged versions of the book as a child and never thought twice about it. In fact I  hadn’t read the original version of The Ugly Duckling until recently. And quite by chance as I was trying to find the various versions of this story. At the outset it is the story about a duckling that is scorned by the world until he realises that he is a swan and very beautiful indeed. It is a story about rejection and acceptance. It is a story about perception. It is a story about dealing with failure. It is a story about hope. And in just that it gives out the first wrong lesson. Why does someone have to learn how to deal with rejection and keep the hope alive?

Why not instead teach a child to accept and embrace people in every form?

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Lessons begin at home, don’t they? And sometimes they are not the best lessons for a child. I have seen several parents distinguish between their children. In a country where boys are naturally favoured and girls are killed in the womb, there are also homes where there may not be an overt gender discrimination, but scratch under the surface and you will see that if the first born is a daughter there will be a pressure to have  a second child. Some homes distinguish children on the basis of academics and other accomplishments that make them stand out. And in some homes, like in the Andersan classic, children are marked by their looks. A dusky daughter will be difficult to get married, so will a fat daughter or a short daughter. Let’s not get started about physical ailments. Again…its mostly the daughter who is at the receiving end.

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It pains me to see that parents and even mothers differentiate between their kids. As a mother myself, it would break my heart to ask my child to go away because he is ugly and inept in any way. As a parent I know I will stand by my child and help him overcome his shortcomings instead of telling him that he is all alone. it’s all right to be different.

I hope my son will grow up to be a parent who stands by his child. I hope he will not give up on him when the whole world does that. I hope he learns to accept his child and work with him with patience and love.

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But no one can truly live in an idyllic world. School can be harsh. Very harsh. I have heard of children coming back with notions of fair and dark skin. Class divisions are more stark than they were in the past. So brands of cars are noticed, shoes and clothes compared. Tiffin boxes are peeped into and birthday parties become status symbols. As a child grows up and interacts with the world, he forms an opinion of what is ‘wow’ and what is not. So today as I refrain from celebrating my son’s birthday until he turns 5 and as he gets invited to parties, I realise he may demand one of his own before he turns 5!

Will my son not be invited to parties because his parents don’t throw birthday parties? Will that not be a rejection?

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Rejection by friends and peers is equally tough. As a child, I had a tough time making friends. I was always intimidated by my peers and lived with a sense of low self-esteem. It took me a long time to open up and claim my friends. Even today most of my friends are the ones I made in school.

So when my son steps out of the home and tries to work his charm and befriend another child, I watch him closely. Not every one wants to befriend a toddler, especially when they are elder to him. They say, “Please take him away, he will get hurt.” It breaks my heart to see him being turned away. But it has little affect on him. Unperturbed, unhurt and unrelenting, he follows the older kids like a shadow. He wants to ride their cycle, run after their ball or just sit amongst them. For a two year old doesn’t understand rejection. He is not affected by their refusal to let him join in their games.

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But will he never feel the hurt? I hope he doesn’t. As a parent I hope V grows up to be tolerant. I hope he makes a lot of friends and doesn’t judge them in anyway. I hope he accepts his friends and stands by them . I hope he learns to forgive and accept people despite their shortcomings.

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The grass is always greener on the other side. So many live with discontentment. So many live unsatisfied lives. There is always something that we want. A better career, a bigger house, a hefty pay check, a prettier daughter-in-law, a rich husband, better grades, a thinner waist line, more jewellery, more money…there is always something that we are living without. And in that race to get it all we skip the little things in life. We forget to live in the moment. We forget to cherish what we have. We don’t thank God for all that we have. Instead we ask for more. To me The Ugly Duckling wouldn’t have been as much a negative fable had the duckling not realised its worth so late in the day. If he had not believed in people’s perception of him, had he looked inward earlier, his days of sadness and lonliness wouldn’t have been as miserable.

Can I then teach my son to be happy with his toys? I will teach him to be thankful for God’s bounties. I will teach him to not be bogged down by his weaknesses. I will teach him to identify his strengths and build on them.

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A child has a virginal perception of the world. And as a parent I cannot colour it for him. He must grow up believing that the world is beautiful. That life is beautiful. Every one is beautiful. That hate and scorn divide the world. That life is all about love, acceptance and respect.

That is how I choose to read The Ugly Duckling. What about you?

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4 thoughts on “Re-reading “The Ugly Duckling”

  1. You’re right, the book does sound very cruel. The point is people can be cruel too, but the main problem with the book is the solution. Instead of accepting who he is and making use of his other talents to prove himself, he has to conform to what others consider beautiful in order to be accepted.

  2. Wow, that was one comprehensive and unconventional reading of The Ugly Duckling. My personal opinion is that you are reading too much into the story and are giving it too much credence that it actually deserves.

    As regards bringing up your child, my personal opinion is that I am going to teach my little 2 yr old girl to be her own person. I am clearly going to explain to her my own limitations in terms of finances and ability to provide for her. Just because she has a 5 Star friend who celebrates her birthday parties in swanky restaurants doesn’t mean that her birthday party also will be celebrated similarly. I grew up that way with my parents keeping me clearly grounded and in tune with their reality and I intend to bring my girl up the same way.

    I don’t know how things will turn out with her, but I don’t have any choice in this regard, do I ?

    • Oh yes, I am over reading it. But that’s what the adult in me reacts to almost everything that my child interacts with these days! Part of the job as a parent I think.

      Maa always tells me that we invest so much time into our kids that she often feels guilty for not having done the same as a parent. You know, reading the right books for instance, or not giving my 2 year old chocolates. She says, manners, behaviour, conduct was all part of living life. So birthday parties were ones in which my mother cooked for a bunch of 20 kids. We made ‘return gifts’ at home. Decorated the home ourselves. And made home made cakes (I always got my cake from a renowned cake shop in Kolkata). There was humility and modesty in the way we lived. And we never questioned it. I am worried about the circle he will be part of. Or the friends he will have. The school he will go to and the world that he will see. For a tiny brain, there will be too much conflict to digest.

      But then we will also grow up!

      Thank you for reading 🙂

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