When my son Brenden was little we couldn't get him into reading. He was plenty smart enough but just couldn't get into a book. Jana and I both love to read so this development was distressing to us. So we tried all kinds of books.
Then, one day, Jana's aunt, an elementary school librarian, told us about a series of books that children Brenden's age just love. Now, she cautioned, these books were kind of inappropriate. She didn't carry them in her library, but from what colleagues had told her other schools couldn't keep these books on the shelf they were being checked out so fast.
The series was the Captain Underpants books published by Scholastic.
The Captain Underpants books are half comic book and half young chapter book. And they are filled with potty humor. Here are some of the titles currently in the series:
The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997)Just look at that list. Underpants. Potty People. Diaper Baby. Professor Poopypants. Talking Toilets. Wicked Wedgie Woman. And I don't even want to know what "Extra Crunchy" is referring to.
Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999)
Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000)
The Captain Underpants Extra-Crunchy Book o' Fun (2001)
Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman (2001)
The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby (2002)
Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People (2006)
Anyway, looking at the books Jana and I demurred on buying them. We're too sophisticated for this kind of literature. And yet, as the months passed, our desperation to get Brenden to read his first book grew. So we cracked and bought him the first book, The Adventures of Captain Underpants.
Brenden sat down and read it straight through.
His first book. We were both pleased and depressed. Captain Underpants? Really? This was to be his first book?
Regardless, our son was reading.
So that night I found myself at the bookstore looking for the second book in the Captain Underpants series. And as I'm walking the rows of books I see a women scanning books as well. After a minute she stops me.
"Excuse me, but do you work here?"
"No," I reply. "But what are you looking for?"
"I'm looking for the Captain Underpants books."
My eyebrows go up. "Well, that's exactly what I'm looking for. Our son just read the first book and loved it. I'm looking for the second book in the series."
She laughs. "I'm looking for them because I'm an elementary school teacher in town. Our library carries the books but they are always checked out. So I'm going to buy some and keep them in my class so kids can read them during our silent reading time. My kids just love these books. It's what got many of them reading."
True story. And as I drove home that night from the bookstore I began to think about Freud and the Anal Stage of childhood development.
Why did Freud spend so much time thinking about the psychological effects of toilet training? Well, for one simple reason. Toilet training is the first time a child confronts the fact that society has claims on how we use our bodies. Prior to toilet training, the child, as we've discussed, is raw Id, a conscienceless gratification machine. Children, we've noted, are like animals. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than the fact that children are not expected to control their bowel movements or urination. They can pretty much poop and pee wherever they are. Much to the inconvenience of parents.
So it probably comes as quite a shock to the child when, apparently out of the blue, the parents start asking the child to control her bladder. The child must be thinking, "Seriously? You want me to hold it in!?"
Yes, yes we do. We want you to hold it in. And, yes, it's uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable at times. But your job is to hold it in and endure the discomfort until you can get to the bathroom. It's time to grow up. It's time to step away from the animal world and join the housebroken humans.
Society has claims upon my body. I can't do whatever I want with it. I can't hit you with it or expose it to you. I have to manage my body and endure physical discomfort at times. My body is not my own.
Interestingly, this is a very biblical idea. Take, for instance, Paul's comments regarding marriage in 1 Corinthians:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.Beyond marriage, I think you can also claim that, as Paul sees it, the bodies of the entire Christian community belong to each other. For Paul, the notion of the body is a communal notion. My body is not my own to do with as I please. As a Christian my physical body is community property. Which is a radical notion to Western ears. But it shouldn't be. Think of potty training.
In short, the realization that society has claims on our bodies is the beginning of our moral sense. That is, toilet training, learning to be a "good" boy or girl, is our first systematic moral education. The first lessons on how bodies and their impulses are to be mastered in light of social demands.
Consequently, the language of goodness and sinfulness is intimately tied up with the experience of potty training. To be good is to be "clean." Cleanliness is next to godliness. The color white is the color of holiness. Conversely, to be bad is to be "dirty," "filthy," or "unclean." The prodigal son finds himself with the pigs. We can make a "mess" of our lives, morally speaking. And the central ritual of Christian salvation is a bath.
And in the Captain Underpants books the evildoers are the "poopy people." Goodness, represented in the hero, is some clean white underwear, proudly worn.
In short, our most primitive metaphors concerning morality reach back to the very first experience we had when society first made claims upon our bodies. So it was then. So it is now.