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Make Way for Proper Parenting

aphorisnt's picture

    Mr. And Mrs. Mallard live near the Boston area of Massachusetts. Mrs. Mallard is due to have children, a group of several young ducklings, quite soon, so she and Mr. Mallard undertake the task of finding the ideal spot to make a home and raise their young flock. While scouring the landscape for the perfect place, the Mallards–Mrs. Mallard in particular–take into account two key qualities they believe denote an acceptable place to raise children. First, they need to find an environment with all the factors a duck needs to survive: water for swimming, food to eat, and land on which to nest. Second, the duck’s home must be safe, protected from all threats the Mallards believe to be particularly dangerous and impossible to abide. In doing so, the Mallards undertake the sacred task of the (most often human) parent, that is, to protect children from all possible avoidable harm as a matter of parental duty and necessity and as the only way to ensure the survival and wellbeing of offspring and safeguard said offspring from the danger of uncontrolled forces. In the short term, this course of action does accomplish the goal of keeping young ones safe and avoiding unnecessary injury or loss of life, but in the long run can prove detrimental to child development and hinder a child’s, or duckling’s, ability to properly asses risk and analyze sources of danger. Therefore, one cannot help but question whether the Mallards of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, in carefully selecting a site to nest, truly do what is “best” for their ducklings.
    To survive, ducks need an environment well-furnished with the necessities of aquatic fowl life, namely a balance of water and land, food, and a generally clean (read habitable) area. A more “natural” and less urban environment would therefore seem ideal, but Mrs. Mallard instantly objects to the idea of living in the woods. “There was sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles” (2). Mrs. Mallard does have cause to worry, for both foxes and turtles have been known to eat ducklings and either could be found in the woods. However, the possible presence of such predators, ones that she and her husband have both most likely encountered before given their knowledge and understanding of the danger, seems a rather extreme reason to reject an otherwise perfect habitat. Based upon McCloskey’s illustration in the book, the woods offer a large pond that, though in slight proximity to a suburban area, appears far enough removed so as not to incur anthropogenic dangers. Bearing little to no markers of human development, the pond and surrounding woods most likely have maintained biodiversity enough to support the organisms of that ecosystem and provide for a young family. Also, Mr. Mallard is quick to suggest the wooded pond as a place to raise the Mallard’s ducklings. Mrs. Mallard, however, refuses to build a nest that close to a perceived danger.
    Instead, Mrs. Mallard opts for a far more controlled environment located near urban Boston, a small island in the Charles River. To the Mallards, this spot is particularly attractive not because of its resources as far as food and abiotic factors but because of its proximity to a certain urban park. In their search for a home, the Mallards found themselves at the Public Garden, a small park in the city with a pond in the center. This well-manicured built environment lacks most of that which one would assume the Mallards deem important. The duck parents-to-be try “fish[ing] for their breakfast in the mud at the bottom of the pond. But they [don’t] find much” (5).  In designing a pond in a park for humans, the builders most likely did not take time to consider the needs of other animals or take into account matters of biodiversity. Limited plant and aquatic animal life in the pond itself in turn limits the possibility of other animals, i.e. the Mallards, surviving in the park long term. Of further note, the Mallards appear to be the only ducks, indeed the only non-human animals anywhere within the confines of the Public Garden save maybe a few pet dogs out for leashed walks led by human owners. The Mallards do find a food source, but not a natural one. Instead, they approach a swan-shaped boat full of people who then throw handfuls of peanuts into the water. The Mallards quickly gobble up the peanuts and eat “another breakfast, better than the first,” but certainly not any healthier than what searching through the mud provided (7). Peanuts are not duck food, at least not in a permanent sense, and the Mallards would do much better by going back to the woods where their children could find plenty of plants, insects, fish and the like for a well-rounded diet. True the island in the Charles River can provide more in the way of food, but the Mallards later opt to stay permanently in the Public Garden pond, meaning a diet of peanuts and little else for the rest of the duckling’s adolescence. By attempting to avoid one threat, that of natural predators, the Mallards instead lead their offspring into the dangerous waters of malnutrition.
    Protection from predators and such physical danger through avoidance also costs the Mallard youth valuable life experience as far as dealing with predators. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard can tell the ducklings all about which animals should be feared and which could make possible friends, but second-hand information is a poor substitute for lived experience. The ducklings may not even know what a fox or a turtle even looks like to properly avoid becoming prey. The Mallards also seem to underestimate the threat humans themselves pose to such small creatures as ducklings. On their first morning in the Public Garden, Mrs. Mallard is nearly run over by bicycle and exclaims “‘This is no place for babies, with all those horrid things rushing about’” (11). However, just months later Mrs. Mallard leads her ducklings right back to that very park where the family plans to spend the rest of their days living on the tiny island in the pond’s center and subsisting off of peanuts thrown by eager Bostonians and tourists in a swan-shaped boat. Mrs. Mallard must then have a short memory or otherwise now vastly discount the threat that had earlier been so unbearable, as living in the Public Garden makes bike, scooters, strollers, and all manner of wheeled human devices a daily occurrence. And unless the Mallards have suddenly developed a method to keep all such devices from coming anywhere near their children, the ducklings could find themselves at risk each time they set webbed foot on the bank of the pond.
    The Mallard’s parenting style also begs the question of whether or not the ducklings will even be prepared to handle the situation should one of them encounter something like a bike. On the way to the pond Mrs. Mallard and her flock undertake to cross a busy street but are nearly flattened by oncoming traffic and, following the example of their mother, the ducklings deal with the situation with a bout curbside quacking. The noise then prompts nearby police officer and Mallard family aficionado Michael to call upon his fellow officers and stop traffic at every turn. “The policemen held back the traffic so Mrs. Mallard and the ducklings could walk across the street, right into the Public Garden” (51-53). From this experience, the ducklings did learn not to cross a busy intersection without looking for cars and other vehicles in the road that can flatten an unsuspecting duck just trying to cross the street, but they learned little about what to do in such a situation beyond quack loudly until a police officer arrives to stop traffic. Michael came to the rescue in this instance, but it is unrealistic to assume he or others like him will always be present to come and save the day, so quacking in the face of oncoming disaster does not really amount to a true solution, especially if a duckling finds themself with a car or bicycle bearing down on them with no chance to stop or swerve out of the way. Moreover, noisemaking as a tactic is the near opposite of what the ducklings should do when encountering another type of danger, that of a predator. If a fox or turtle hears a duck loudly quacking in fear, that turtle or fox is sure to quickly seek out the sound and find an easy meal, so the ducklings may be in for a rude and possibly deadly awakening when they mature and leave the nest. Upon leaving, the ducklings, having never learned from their parents, will also lack the key survival knowledge they should pass on to their own ducklings in the next generation of Mallards. Mr. And Mrs. Mallard, then, have begun a dangerous cycle of Mallard children unprepared to deal with the real dangers of the world at large.
    Make Way for Ducklings is at first read a rather benign tale about the early days of the Mallard family and Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s quest to raise children as safely as possible, but a darker truth lies beneath the simplistic language sweet-looking illustrations. Rather, in their attempt to offer protection the Mallards truly hinder the growth and development of their children, offering scant nutrition in a manufactured environment and little in the way of life skills  needed to properly navigate the dangers and realities of the world they inhabit. Insulating children from all manner of threat might seem an understandable method for guaranteeing the youths’ well-being from birth well into early adolescence, but the reality stands that such parenting truly does children a disservice by sacrificing life skills and life experiences in the name of safety. Though he most likely did not intend it as such, McCloskey’s tale offers an instruction manual on what not to do when raising children.


jccohen's picture

parenting and risk


What an astute and sharply written critique of this apparently ‘benign’ children’s story!   Your utter seriousness of tone (‘all manner of human wheeled devices,’ ‘a darker truth,’ etc.) gives this analysis a subtly ironic flavor that I’m assuming is intentional, and is both funny and incisive. 


Just the essential decision that the story is built around is a pretty stunning one in the context that we’re building in our course/360:  the family of ducks, led by Mrs. M, decides on an urban pond rather than the woods!  This is so interesting because, as you say, this is a decision that seems against any kind of common sense about what ducks need to survive.  So…why does the author fashion the story in this way?  Is there an intention here to reflect on human choices of that era (the book was published in 1941, when in fact people were beginning to move in large numbers into cities)?  Another question:  What do you think children (and perhaps adults as well) took away from reading this story about “nature”? 


You do a thoughtful job of employing the ideas of “parenting style,” risk, dealing with danger, and so forth that several of our readings have explored; you should cite these in terms of the ideas, even if you don’t quote directly.  And toward the end you comment:  “Upon leaving, the ducklings, having never learned from their parents, will also lack the key survival knowledge they should pass on to their own ducklings in the next generation of Mallards” – a statement that carries with it a larger meaning about the state of both childrearing and ecological literacy!