If you’re the parent of a young child, you probably have a copy of The Rainbow Fish somewhere in the house– probably two or three! It seems this is one of several books that every family member and friend wants to be the one to give to you.
The book’s popularity and appeal are rooted not just in its attractive art style, including reflective foil silver fish scales, but also in its moral lesson. In simple terms, the book teaches about sharing and every modern parent knows that sharing is the Cardinal Virtue of Childhood. Whatever your child’s other vices, shortcomings and individual weaknesses might be, if he or she knows how to share and does it consistently in public social settings the parent can be confident, even proud, that they’ve raised their child right.
But why is sharing so important? Ah, this is the question to which no parent seems to know the answer!
We do not read The Rainbow Fish in our house, not to our children and not for the pleasure of the adults. We don’t think “sharing” is a virtue, cardinal or otherwise. We think it is an unthinking codeword of social metaphysics– the idea that one’s individual value is relative to what other individuals think it is.
Here is how The Rainbow Fish teaches social metaphysics to children:
The eponymous pisces is born with beautiful shiny scales. His shiny scales are coveted by other fish who are born without them. These fish ask for his scales, which he does not give to them. As a result, the other fish scorn and ostracize him. He meets a “wise” octopus (ie, a not-fish) who tells him that he can be desirable to the other fish if he gives the virtues he was born with to others. He proceeds to do so until he is left with one shiny scale for himself, all others being distributed pro-rata to the other fish. At this point, the other fish are happy with him and he is accepted into their community.
What’s going on here? Let’s parse this.
The protagonist is an antagonist. The school of fish, the fish community, is the protagonist and he has antagonized them simply be existing. The reason his existence is bothersome is because he was born with qualities (beauty, in this case) which they lack. They feel lessened in their pride and their own existence by witnessing things he came into life with that they were not.
Without making any attempt to know and understand the Rainbow Fish, the other fish determine he is unlikable because he won’t give them the things they have, simply because they ask for it. His virtues are vices if they can’t have them for themselves.
The Rainbow Fish faces exclusion and emotional pain if he chooses to keep himself to himself. He is not free to exercise his property rights as he likes without fear of being alienated by the other members of the community.
To gain wisdom about how to participate in a community of his peers, he speaks with a creature outside of his species. He learns not to trust his instincts or his own rational capabilities but to trust in alien powers. He learns that he is wrong “as a person” just for being who he is– he must make some gift, offering or sacrifice of himself to the community to be accepted.
Finally, he gives up what is desirable and virtuous of himself to others. Only when there is equality are the others happy with him. And suddenly, he is happy with himself for being liked by them. It is not explained how and why he needed to be unhappy without that condition being met nor why he couldn’t survive and prosper without giving away his virtue and strengths to others, now totally diluted.
We believe that the strengths and capabilities people are born with are virtuous. At minimum, they benefit the individual and at maximum they may be utilized in social cooperation to benefit others as well. But they do not harm or hinder other people who are born without them.
We believe that people should be free to choose who they associate with and on what terms. Giving away one’s values and virtues is not an acceptable condition for gaining group membership or loyalty in our minds. Any group that values an individual as a member should be able to value them for who they are, not for what they can take from them.
We believe individuals should trust themselves and their own reasoning. They should not need to rely upon the “wisdom” (opinions) of people who are not like themselves to learn how to live their own life truthfully and successfully.
We do not believe that self-sacrifice is a reasonable price to pay for the approval of others. We do not believe the approval of others to be valuable or desirable criteria for self-esteem and the ability to live life joyfully on one’s own terms.
We believe there are other means for establishing group harmony and the bonds of community than simple equality of property, possessions or ideas. The Cardinal Virtue in our minds, in childhood and otherwise, is Integrity– honesty with oneself, full visibility of one’s individuality, and the courageous nobility of embracing the unique challenges and triumphs of each person’s identity.
For these reasons, we do not read The Rainbow Fish in our household even though many families do.