Let me get this out of the way first. I hate the children’s book The Rainbow Fish. I really do. Artistically it’s a fun little book, but the story itself, I can’t stand. Maybe it’s because it’s a translation, and loses some of its meaning when translated from German to English, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Let me start off by saying that I understand that the book is supposed to be about sharing. I like sharing. However, what I get out of The Rainbow Fish is that in order to be liked, you must give away intrinsic pieces of yourself. Not just your time and energy, but the actual pieces that make you unique and interesting.
Let’s break this down into small digestible chunks, shall we?
The book opens with all the other fish wanting to play with the rainbow fish because he’s beautiful. He, however, is proud and aloof because of his appearance, and won’t play with them. When a little fish gets up the gumption to ask the Rainbow Fish for a scale, he refuses the little fish. Then all the other fish won’t have anything to do with him.
This set up really frosts me. First, all the other fish want to play with Rainbow Fish because he’s beautiful, not because of any sterling qualities he might have. And they stop asking him to play with them because he won’t give any of them a scale, not because he’s basically, for all intents and purposes, stuck up. Let me make this point right now: scales are not a prized possession. They are an inherent body part, like skin or bones or eyes. Giving away a scale requires the Rainbow Fish to damage himself.
So right away the motivation for the story is suspect in my opinion. Rather than focus on actions (Rainbow Fish’s poor behavior) it focuses on appearance. It defines worth as what you look like rather than what you do.
When the Rainbow Fish starts to miss all the adulation he used to receive, he goes to a wise old octopus to ask him for advice. The octopus tells him to give a scale to all the other fish, and that while he will no longer be beautiful, he will be happy.
So he returns home, and the other fish once again ask him for a scale. This time, trusting in the octopus’ advice, the Rainbow Fish gives everyone a scale, until he only has one scale left. The result? He’s very happy, of course, because that’s how the story is meant to go.
But if you think about it, there are two underlying reasons for his happiness. Besides the joy of giving (which definitely is real) there’s also the joy of being accepted because he no longer is different from everyone else. That’s the take away for me. Give away everything that makes you unique, and conform, and then you’ll be happy.
Yeah. Not what I want my kids to live by.
I do want my kids to be generous and charitable and kind, but not at the sacrifice of themselves. Sharing and generosity does not require you to damage yourself.
Think about it this way. Wouldn’t this story be much more interesting if the Rainbow Fish learned how to help the other fish find the things that made them unique and interesting and useful? That’s my kind of sharing.