by Simon Hodgson
“What books would you recommend,” a pregnant friend asked me, “before we have the baby?” What she was doing asking O.C. Dad, I have no idea. But I treat all questions with seriousness, even the crazy ones, so I thought for a moment.
Should I choose Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock? Should I pick out What To Expect When You’re Expecting or the yellow what-to-do-when booklet that California Pacific Medical Center gave us, the one with the emergencies and the scratch’n’sniff pictures?
“Don’t read anything,” I said.
“Huh,” she said. “Very San Francisco. Make it up as you go along?”
“Okay.” She looked at me strangely, as though she was regretting asking the initial question. It was the same look you give when you realize that the guy next to you on the bus was on America’s Most Wanted.
“Watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” I said definitively.
“The Gene Wilder version.”
“Gene. Wilder. Anything else.”
“No. That’s all.”
Although the conversation ended soon afterwards, I went home satisfied with my suggestion. Then I pondered a little further, and realized how stupid, how thoughtless I’d been. How could I have pointed this nervous prospective parent only towards Willy Wonka, when four or five other books by Roald Dahl would be equally beneficial? James and the Giant Peach and Matilda are jam-packed with despicable caregivers and behavioral “don’t’s” for anxious parents to avoid.
On the other hand, for sheer panache, nothing beats old Gene Wilder in a purple coat.
If you’re still wondering how parents can possibly pick up morsels from a movie, consider the case of Augustus Gloop. The swollen Augustus, stout-waisted son of doting German parents, eats constantly. He snacks, he nibbles, he gnaws…until he enters the chocolate room and spies the river in which the chocolate is blended. Has his mother trained him to use self-control? She has not. Can Augustus communicate his feelings in appropriate ways? No. Can his lederhosen contain his greed? Nein. He rushes as fast as his little legs will carry him to the edge of the chocolate river, and, of course, he falls in.
“Don’t just stand there. Do something,” yells the ample Frau Gloop at the confectioner.
“Help,” says Wonka halfheartedly. “Police. Murder.”
I love this scene. Yes, there are books from which parents could learn much. Lessons on communicating with your child, fostering empathy, or why self-control can be a better predictor of academic success than IQ (please see Mind in the Making, which I’ve ordered from the library and am looking forward to reading). But isn’t it more fun to see a kid fall into a chocolate river? Aren’t the lessons so much more visible? Who wants to know how to negotiate classroom disputes when you’ve got a German child, built like a bratwurst and stuck in a see-through pipe?
The sins of the parents are magnified in their children. That’s the lesson of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, as it is from many of Roald Dahl’s wonderful and blackly comic books. If you behave like this, your kid will end up like this.
Witness the alkaline Veruca Salt, whose daddy loves her and gives her the world. Until she finds the one thing which isn’t for sale, the goose that lays the golden eggs.
“I won’t talk to you ever again,” Veruca tells her dad. “You’re a mean father, you never give me anything I want.”
Or listen to the song of the Oompa Loompas, Dahl’s Greek chorus, who soft-shoe-shuffle their way through the movie and quietly express the moral for watching parents.
“Who do you blame when your kid is a brat,
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat.
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame,
You know exactly who’s to blame.”
The kids are bad, but the parents are worse. Although the children in Dahl’s stories are often naughty, it’s the caregivers who are morally decrepit: vicious aunts, grotesquely ambitious dads, and sociopathic teachers.
I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when I was a kid. I loved its cosmic justice, the way little Charlie Bucket starts with nothing but a dream and ends up inheriting the chocolate factory. Now that I’m a dad, I realize that the film isn’t a kids’ movie at all. It’s a parable for parents. And if it isn’t exactly geared to expecting mommies and daddies, I know which one I’d choose for education or entertainment.
“A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men,” says Willy Wonka.
Even Dr. Spock would agree with that.
Simon Hodgson is a reader, writer, editor, and dad. Born in Scotland, he now lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.
Photo from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)