'Go the **** to Sleep' and the Backlash against 'Perfect' Parenting

Some evenings, I regret ever inventing “The Moon Song.” These are the nights that I tiptoe down the stairs, contemplating my dinner and a peaceful evening, only to hear the breathless and punctuated cry of my almost-two-year-old daughter: “MOMMY! SING! MOON! SONG!” My little girl can go from zero to hysterical in a flash, and few things set her off like bedtime, because she knows her mommy and daddy are having fun (i.e., slumping on the couch in utter exhaustion) without her. So, while I can intellectually acknowledge the many lessons my family learns through bedtime routines—things like boundary setting and patience—I maintain a love-hate relationship with “The Moon Song,” and with bedtime.

Go the F**k to Sleep, authored by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortés, speaks to the seemingly universal parental frustration with bedtime. Sort of. The book parodies typical toddler books by pairing insipid rhymes with images of animals and human babies cuddled together in peaceful slumber. On each page, the poetry concludes with some rendition of the book’s title line, and this expletive-laced text strikes a chord with readers who are amused, offended, and polarized by a book that only spans thirty-two pages.

My research on the book suggests that reviewers (official authors and anonymous reviewers alike) fall into two camps that can best be summarized with the same sentiment: there’s something seriously wrong with parents today. Reviewers offended by the book propose a range of reasons why Mansbach’s text signals the deep-seated flaws of today’s overly-indulgent, helicopter-style, parents-as-martyrs at the altar of the child parenting practices. Reviewers amused by the book posit its detractors as uptight and humorless, two characteristics supposedly just as likely to ruin a child. Mixed in with these reviews is the constant reminder that this is a book for parents—not children—and that parents ought not to read it to their kids or leave the book lying around for little hands to grab. Those last points feel painfully obvious.

To me, the conversations surrounding Mansbach’s book speak to the pressure to be a perfect parent and the incessant reminders (often coupled with unsolicited advice and guilt-ridden consumerism to rectify parental errors) that, when it comes to parenting, whatever you’re doing is probably wrong. At least that’s the vibe in an era where experts weigh in on every aspect of childrearing and comparisons between children and to some arbitrary standard (of height, vocabulary, sleep patterns, etc.) run rampant. The book itself is a missed opportunity, relying on what is essentially a one-liner and the juxtaposition of vulgarity and a children’s book to stir up the latest viral sensation. I admit that Samuel L. Jackson’s read aloud on Letterman made me laugh out loud, but he only read one page, and did so with impeccable comedic timing. My experience of reading the entire text was as tiring as singing “The Moon Song” for the tenth time; the poetry is sloppily composed, the images are bland, and the joke repeats with little variation on each page. From an aesthetic standpoint (without considering the controversial cuss words), Go the F**k to Sleep is disappointing.

From a cultural point-of-view, the book, and its attendant hullaballoo, is equally wearying. Like the dichotomous discussions about parenting that this book draws out, people are taking this book way too seriously. It’s not a marker of the ultimate demise of polite society (didn’t that apocalypse happen already?) or a landmark publication in children’s literature. It speaks to a moment of catharsis for many parents, a recognition that this childrearing gig ain’t easy and that public conversations about parenting are often devoid of compassion or common sense. Ultimately, though, the book’s humor, like the pent-up frustrations of bedtime, surges powerfully but passes away rather quickly.

The lingering conversations for me and my husband centered not around the crude language but around the necessity of grace. Of all the prayers I can say on behalf of my daughter, I keep returning to the supplication for grace—to cover the parenting mistakes I see and the ones I don’t even realize I make, to appeal to the one Perfect Parent who understands the frustration of watching His children struggle for rest and peace. Parenting my daughter takes me to new heights of joy and unplumbed depths of anxiety, but it hasn’t brought me any mystical wisdom—just the echo every evening that I can’t control everything, even bedtime. Mansbach’s book iterates that frustration, the fragility of parenthood, in cathartic sentiment if uncouth execution.

Go the F**k to Sleep reminded me of “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams; in his short story about a doctor trying to diagnose a child with diphtheria, Williams details the violent resistance of the child and the savage, frenzied force the doctor uses to save the little girl’s life. At the story’s climax, the doctor justifies his position:

The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one’s self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is a social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.

Here Williams plays with the paradox of the doctor’s methods—the use of force of body and will to overpower a child for her own good. The doctor recognizes his irrationality, that his passion during the exam trumps his reason, yet he carries on with the awareness that he alone can save the girl. Her parents, in spite of their love and care in calling for the doctor at last, cannot summon the will to coerce their daughter’s compliance.

That helplessness, what Williams calls “a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame” sometimes accompanies the parenting experience as well. The frustration of bedtime is knowing that there is no way to force sleep—no matter how desperately every member of the family needs to lie down and sleep in peace. No frustration warrants physical or verbal violence against a child, but neither Williams nor Mansbach advocates or condones abuse. Both deal with the sometimes necessary and utterly exhausting force of will that it takes to parent well; it’s just that Williams does so with subtlety, nuance, and eloquence, whereas Mansbach employs crass language and rough parody. My biggest complaint with Mansbach’s book is not ethical but aesthetic; his text strikes a raw nerve but fails to move beyond shock value. I won’t be buying Mansbach’s book (or reading it to my child), but I will keep on praying for grace in those exasperating moments that his text expresses. Right now, though, I’ve got to go sing “The Moon Song.”

About Erin Wyble
  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I was amused by the book for about four pages but it pretty quickly overstates its gag. Its like Garfield. I hear there are people who still laugh at it, but those people don’t concern me. Neither do people who think this book is either awesome or terrible. I’m really just surprised that anyone cares—pretty much like the author here describes.

  • Kiel

    I still laugh at Garfield. Pretty regularly, actually.

    Anyway, this was a great article. Well done, Erin!

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Kiel! Dark side! Come back to us! Rob Bell is one thing, but Garfield…!

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Pearls before Swine, all the way. Well, at least since Calvin and Hobbes got over with.

  • Ben Bartlett

    I’d like to take a moment here to say that Garfied jokes aside, this is a fantastic article. The problems of guilt, frustration, and willpower in parenting are often not handled with grace and patience in the church. In not admitting to ourselves that we are frustrated, we only increase the fear and guilt and drama in our own minds and in the minds of those who feel alone in their frustrations.

    I have no desire to read this book, thanks to Erin… but I do desire to parent my children well and to help others not feel alone when they too are frustrated with their kids.

    Thanks so much, Erin!

  • Joy

    Just found this review and wanted to say “thank you,” Erin for the great points you brought up. I really enjoyed your review and thoughtful approach to this topic. Well done!


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