Friday, March 22, 2013

The Poky Little Puppy

(By Guest Writer - Michel Weatherall)

The classic Golden Book, The Poky Little Puppy, is one of the earliest books of my memory. I still have my copy with my name written in faded ink on the inside front cover. Beneath my name is my, now 16 year old, son's name and beneath that, my 14 year old daughter's name.

For as far as my memory goes, I can always remember being somewhat confused by the story's moral – if it had one.

Last night, my children said the very same thing.

The Poky Little Puppy is a story about five little puppies who dig a hole under the fence to go out for a walk in the wide, wide world. The fifth poky puppy is always behind the others. Eventually the Poky Little Puppy smells the dessert that is prepared for the puppies each night. The four other puppies smell it too and hurry home while the poky puppy takes his time. The four puppies then eat their dinner and are scolded by their mother for digging a hole under the fence and punished by not getting dessert. Much later, along comes the poky puppy after everyone is asleep and eats the desserts the other four were not allowed to have.

This scenario takes place twice. The poky little puppy enjoys rice pudding and chocolate custard, a full helping, intended for five puppies, all to himself. 

However, the third time, after the mother punishes the four puppies, they fill in the hole and the mother then rewards them with the strawberry shortcake dessert.When the Poky Little Puppy returns he is forced to squeeze through a hole in the fence and enjoys no dessert, as the four other puppies had already eaten it, and feels sorry for himself for being so poky.

The lesson appears to be that being poky and misbehaved will have consequences. But in this three day period, the poky little puppy has enjoyed eight times the dessert of each of the other puppies. It seems like the poky little puppy is being rewarded for being late and misbehaved. If there's a moral to this story, it is ambiguous or veiled. 

The five puppies were the ones – in spite of numerous warnings – that dug holes under the fence.
Let's be clear here.
This was the crime.
This is what they were punished for. What we know is that the Poky Little Puppy did not repair the damage (the dug hole) on the third excursion; the other four did.

Is there a point about loyalty to the group? Is there a point about being separate and distinct from the group? Is there a lesson about charity, waiting for the slowest (weakest) member? The moral seems lost or confused.

I think part of the lesson is that of Karma.
“It's a round world”.
You reap what you sow.
What goes around comes around.
Intentionally or not, the Poky Little Puppy allowed his four siblings to suffer the consequences of their punishment while he enjoyed what should have been their rewards. In the end however, the rolls were reversed. But I think there is more depth to this story.

I think the story's moral lies with the mother's actions and not the puppies at all. There is a lesson of incentives vs. deterrents.

Being rewarded for good behaviour vs. being punished for bad behaviour.
We see that deterrents – punishment for bad behaviour – not only doesn't work, but also creates injustice in their small world. Their mother's numerous warnings (the signs) and punishments do not stop the puppies from digging under the fence, and the injustice of the Poky Little Puppy being rewarded for his bad behaviour. It becomes out of balance.

By the end, the four puppies decide to fix the hold they dug, but this time are rewarded for their good behaviour. This succeeds. Justice is set aright and Balance is returned. The good behaving puppies reap their rewards while the badly behaving Poky Little Puppy suffers the consequences for his actions.

This strikes me as a lesson to parents on parenting (or for that matter, simply dealing with people in general).

This has very strong Taoist undertones. These lessons can be found in Lao Tzu's Toa Te Ching, specifically verse 63, "The Secrets of Getting Things Done".
Ralph Alan Dale, a Chinese-language translator of the Tao Te Ching comments the following on this verse:
...Lao Tzu's most important advice in life is to avoid coercion. It is... precisely opposite to how most of our institutions are programmed... Most people don't commit crimes, because, if they do, they will go to prison. Even most babies and young children are accommodated to the system of coercion by physical punishment when they do something that displeases their parents. Lao Tzu says all this is wrong. The use of force indoctrinates us into behaving contrary to our human natures..." "The Tao Te Ching: Translated, Commenting & Introduction" by Ralph Alan Dale, Watkins Publishing, 2006, pg. 178-179
This resonates so true with this story, The Poky Little Puppy.

This is further reinforced in General Choi Hong Hi's (1918-2002)1 Jungshin Sooyang. He lists, according to Lao Tzu's influences (based primarily on the Tao Teh Ching, verse 38)  four types of societies or methods of governing, or simply ways of dealing with other people. 1) The Ideal Society, 2) The Moral Society, 3) the Legalistic Society, and 4) the 'corrupt' Society.
"Everyone of us, as a social being, desires to live in a free and peaceful society. At the same time, it is our obligation to build such a society for the people.
"An ideal society, according to Lao-Tzu, is one in which the ruler is of such high moral character that he can rule naturally, not by interference or fear but by appealing to the good nature of his people, who by merely doing their duty can live freely in peace without fear and anxiety 
"Next, a moral society is one in which the people admire and praise their ruler in gratitude for his love and the benign disposition he bears toward his people. 
"Thirdly there is a "legalistic society in which the ruler, because he lacks the moral authority, resorts to various laws to govern his people, who in turn obey because they fear the retribution that the violation of these laws will bring." Under these circumstances, the ruler loses touch with his people. 
"Finally the worst kind of society is that in which the ruler, through deception and trickery, misuses his legal authority to further his personal ambitions and imposes his rule upon his people by force as he deems necessary. In such a society, the ruler is despised and hated by his people and eventually invites not only his own downfall but with him the downfall of the people and the country."
Initially in this story, we see the mother functioning ('governing') within the “Legalistic Society” form, hoping and relying on the puppies' fear of punishment. But by the end of the story we see the mother evolve and grow towards the second higher form. That of “Moral Society”).

I think the fact that this children's story is teaching wisdom from an Eastern tradition - to our Western worldview - strikes us as confusing and difficult to understand. We try to make it fit into our own preconceived beliefs and values. We try to hammer a square peg into a round hole and it simply doesn't fit.

Although it may have taken me the better part of 40 years to finally understand the moral of this children's tale, I think I've finally got it. At least that's my take on it.

And I'm happy to say - regardless of only recently figuring this story out - my wife and I, as parents of two wonderful children, have raised them this way; with more focus on rewarding good or outstanding behaviour, and minimalizing punishment for poor or bad behaviour... maybe that's why my children are wonderful.

1 Creator and Founder of Traditional Taekwon-do

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