The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister, is a popular children’s book. Its popularity is partly due to its eyecatching illustrations and partly due to the story of a “beautiful fish who finds friendship and happiness when he learns to share.”
At first glance, this story seems to have some positive messages. But let’s look more closely. As the story begins, we see that Rainbow Fish is more beautiful than the other fish because of his colorful, unique, glittering scales. The other fish watch in awe as Rainbow Fish swims around them. One day, a plain fish, offering nothing in return, asks Rainbow Fish to give him one of his scales. Rainbow Fish is surprised and appalled by this notion, and sends the plain fish away.
The plain fish is upset and rushes to tell all the other fish what happened. From then on, all of the fish turn away from Rainbow Fish and ignore him when he swims by.
Rainbow Fish feels lonely and sad. He starts to wonder if there is any point in having nice scales if he can’t enjoy them.
A “wise” octopus, who has heard of Rainbow Fish’s situation from the waves of the sea, advises him to give one of his glittering scales to each of the other fish. The octopus asserts that even though Rainbow Fish won’t be the most beautiful fish any more, he’ll be happy.
That advice doesn’t make sense to Rainbow Fish. He wonders how he can live without his most prized possessions. But as he’s pondering how to proceed, the plain fish returns and asks again for just one of the special scales. This time, Rainbow Fish gives in.
Soon, all the other fish hear that Rainbow Fish has given away a scale. They swarm around him, each demanding a scale of their own. Rainbow Fish gives away his scales until he has only one left for himself. No longer a special beauty, he and all the other fish are now the same.
The story tells us that Rainbow Fish has found friendship and true happiness. But has he?
Does the fact that Rainbow Fish has something that others want make it okay for the others to ostracize Rainbow Fish until he gives them what they think they deserve— what is not rightfully theirs? Doesn’t Rainbow Fish have the right to pursue his own interests and make friends who will like him for who he is?
By believing that his scales have no value to him unless others admire them, Rainbow Fish is deriving his self-esteem from the opinions of others.
A better lesson would be that he should enjoy his scales and be proud of them because he values them, not simply because others like them. (This is true whether you consider his scales to be actual physical beauty or symbolic of valued attributes.)
As for the “wisdom” of the octopus, instead of telling Rainbow Fish to enjoy his possessions and/or engage in a fair trade with others, the octopus tells Rainbow Fish to give away his scales to the other fish, lose his unique beauty, and become the same as everyone else so he can be “happy” and have “friends.”
This story teaches that happiness comes from giving in to the demands of others, that self-esteem arises from the opinions of others, and that self-sacrifice is necessary to make friends.
At Challenger, we take a different approach.
• We teach reasoning skills so children learn to act and think independently without giving in to peer pressure. Additionally, as children learn to manage their emotions, they develop skills that increase their ability to relate and interact positively with others in social settings. Thus, there is no need to buy friends by “giving away scales.”
• We discourage blind acceptance of “wisdom” from authority figures. We encourage children to question—to constantly ask “why?” Furthermore, as children think independently, they can identify relationships that offer value and decide to share with people if and when they choose to.
• We help children gain personal independence as a key factor in recognizing their individual self-worth. When preschoolers can write their own names, zip up their own coats, and take care of their papers and bags, they find true joy in the ability to do things for themselves. Instead of making students feel guilty for having unique talents or abilities, we encourage them to strive for excellence. They gain their self-esteem from their accomplishments and not from the praise or acceptance of others.
At Challenger, we look for stories that instill the values and skills children really need to pursue authentic happiness for the rest of their lives.