The Bedtime Story

Narrative Skills, Education, and Social Class

Photo by Josh Applegate (@joshapplegate via Unsplash)

I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.

These four lines are repeated throughout the children’s story Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, illustrating that unconditional love is due between children and parents in American culture. It does so by presenting the reader with illustrations of a child throughout relatable stages of youth and adulthood. As he grows, he becomes more of a troublemaker, but the repeated, almost musical refrain in the epithet above ends each page to remind the reader and the child in the story that they will be loved and forgiven for mistakes they make as they get older. The other side of this is that the mother grows as well and eventually gets old enough to where the child is an adult, holding her, and their roles are reversed. Finally, the boy in the story is an adult and holds his own infant daughter, ending the book with them both singing the same refrain.

While the general value and purpose of this story are not too complicated, the actual ways it might be read and interpreted are a bit more involved and interesting. Shirley Brice Heath’s 1982 article, “What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School,” delves into her study of the “ways of talking” adopted by three different American household types she compares and can be used to further understand how this might apply to Munsch’s book. The three household types she identifies and compares are "Maintown," "Roadville," and "Trackton," in what could be understood to be descending socio-economic order. The actual classifications, however, are made based upon the ways in which the parents in these households present their children with books. Put simply, Heath looks at how children learn to learn and how well this prepares them to succeed. Looking at just the first household, Maintown, the value of her study becomes clear—we control how prepared children are to see books in a way that prepares them for school.

Maintown households use books to learn their connections to the real world, which in this case might turn up early lessons like that parenthood and growth are cyclical processes: Children and their parents will one day grow up, just like the boy in the story does. The implication about reading and literacy is that the process of their being read to is cyclical, too. That is, later in life, they will one day read to their own children, teaching them the same lessons through the same medium—books. In Roadville, these same lessons might come across differently. Children here could interpret the story as containing illustrations of something more binary, like what a “bad” kid is. Love You Always even specifically describes the boy using “bad” words. This could introduce ideas about the use of language that are unproductive for succeeding later in the American education system. Higher grades might have them see these same bad words deemed acceptable in school, albeit only in a certain literary or prosodic manner. Were this to happen, it might be confusing for a child raised in a Roadville household to relate to the concept.

Finally, there is Trackton. These households were deemed to have the least direct engagement between parents and children as far as reading stories together besides “adult” literature like the Bible or the newspaper. For the Trackton kids, it would undoubtedly be more difficult to pinpoint how this story might be interpreted. This is because the implication in a Trackton household with this book is that the kid read it on their own. As an example, one of these children might notice the refrain mentioned earlier and draw an abstract connection between lyrics in music and the sentences in books having a similar rhythmic quality. The chances of learning this are a gamble, however—awareness of the power of book-smarts is neither innate nor guaranteed. A further corollary to this would be the hindered likelihood of a child in a Trackton household to see reading as something other than private and intuitive (contrary to how it is presented in schools, such as through class discussions and group activities).

As becomes clear at this point, children in Maintown households have the most resources at hand to learn them in the established ways of learning from ages far preceding primary education. It is worth noting that Trackton kids might be so often underprepared to learn in school versus their peers that they would be forced to learn to work around a system stacked against them. Adaptability and intuition are valuable traits of their own, but these traits aren’t necessarily the ones fostered in the current education system. Still, the chances of maximizing one’s potential against all odds are inherently lower than those of the more abundantly prepared. After all, what good is success if you do not survive to see it?

The result is this: The inequality in narrative skills developed in the most formative years between the household types will only embolden existing socio-educational inequalities. Maintown kids will maintain the system of natural nepotism, benefiting from it and passing down to their own kids how to maintain that system. Roadville kids would likely stagnate for the most part, and the resulting array of invariability in performance would funnel them into the same expansive growing working class they were born in. Lastly, the Trackton kids would likely have only some fortunate enough to climb the socio-educational ladder. The majority would fall through the cracks. As advantages of the better-prepared households solidify and further expand, these same “cracks” the others fall through would only expand in kind. 

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