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How a Naked Emperor Taught Me to Reject Wipe Warmers

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In honor of World Read Aloud Day on March 7, a question: What children's story from your early years do you remember most? My favorite was "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen. I remember fondly my older sister reading the story to me aloud, and I would howl with laughter as the duped emperor in imaginary clothes led the royal procession. In addition to a boy's thrill at learning what the word "streaking" meant, I enjoyed the closeness my sister and I shared during those readings, a memory we still cherish.

Revisiting that famous story, I realize how relevant it remains even though it was first published in 1837 (when it would have been read aloud frequently). As you probably recall, the vain emperor loves clothes, and one day a pair of charlatans arrive and promise to weave him the most magnificent outfit. The clothes would be made from such special fabric that they would be invisible to every person who was either "unfit for his position" or "impossibly stupid." Since everyone, including the emperor, is afraid to be perceived as inept or dumb, the entire kingdom vouches for the invisible garments' beauty. It is only during a royal parade that an innocent child, who is unafraid to see the naked truth of the situation, calls out: "He doesn't have anything on!"

The lessons are many: don't succumb to group-think just to fit in; stand by the truth and your beliefs; and perhaps hardest of all, don't be afraid to challenge authority and blow the whistle on others committing injustice. As a writer, I extend the lessons to critical thinking and multiple literacies. Make sure you read all the "fine print" in life, especially when someone is pressuring you to buy into their perspective--e.g. in politics, ethics, business deals, legal contracts, marketing, and even parenting.

To illustrate how parenting can resemble the world of the naked emperor, consider what happens to expectant parents when they take their first trip to one of those dreaded big-box stores for tiny humans. I remember my wife and I feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and volume of items that supposedly reflected the "best practices" of baby care at that time. While we accepted the necessity of many items, all new parents have that point where the marketing and peer pressure have to stop. For us, it was at the "wipe warmer."

A container designed to keep cold wipes from traumatizing a baby's bottom was too much. For all of human history before such a product, human babies have thrived in spite of being wiped with a room-temperature cloth. Unless the wipes are stored in a freezer, I think a baby will endure his/her wiping just fine. For me, to indulge in a wipe warmer would have meant treating my baby like, well, a naked baby emperor.

Please don't take offense if you are a card-carrying member of the Wipe Warmers Fan Club. Indeed, in a recent post on the new edition of Dr. Spock's parenting guide, I laughed at my own early dabbling in questionable flashcards designed to teach a baby to read. (Not sure why I didn't blow the whistle on those before buying them.) So it seems we all have items we fail to acknowledge the naked truth about when it comes to our babies, no doubt a function of our blinding love.

Such blind spots comprise more serious dangers that "The Emperor's New Clothes" can help us detect within ourselves. In The Ugly Duckling Goes to Work: Wisdom for the Workplace from the Classic Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Mette Norgaard explains that we can often have a showy parade going on in our own minds with no child's voice to cut through the self-delusion, lying, denial, or addiction. At those moments, "each of us needs a few people who will level with us, whether they are friends, family, colleagues, or a coach. We do not always need to take their advice, but we do need to pay attention--particularly when we notice a pattern." In other words, sometimes the elephant in the room is actually in our own mind. Regarding "The Emperor's New Clothes," Norgaard concludes: "Andersen's intent with this tale is not to judge us, but to ask us to be authentic. He does not denigrate us, but he does ask us to be aware. He invites us to have some fun but not be foolish."

In the spirit of having fun but not being foolish, I will be hosting a "Humor Edition" of Family Story Time at my local library in honor of World Read Aloud Day on March 7. (For more information, please visit http://litworld.org.) I am working on a reading list aimed especially at grades K-3, though all ages are welcome. Can you recommend some humorous children's books? My daughters really enjoyed books by Robert Munsch and Mercer Mayer, among others. (Munsch's "Aaron's Hair" is about a rogue head of hair that especially appeals to me.)

On a related note, where did you blow the whistle on marketing to parents? Am I wrong about wipe warmers?