How does a cat look to a mouse?

It turns out that kids don’t come with an operating manual. And they don’t necessarily come with preinstalled manners, self-control, or problem-solving skills. Maybe your kids are different. Or maybe—probably—you know what I’m talking about. 

As a dad, I try—often without success—to model and teach these desirable behaviors so that my kids will evolve from neanderthals to social assets sooner rather than later. (The jury is still out. Check in with me in a decade or so for a progress report.)

In any case, one of the many challenging skills I’m trying to teach is perspective-taking, or learning to imagine how things look from another person’s point-of-view. If my kids aren’t terrific at perspective-taking, it’s a small consolation that most grownups aren’t that skilled either. Not considering other perspectives usually goes hand in hand with making rapid assumptions about “how things really are” and then reacting and acting based on those assumptions. Another word for “assumption” is “story.” We tell ourselves nearly instantaneous, explanatory stories about just about everything we observe. Many of those stories are benign, but some get us in trouble. We jump to conclusions about other people’s motivations and it’s a short road from faulty assumptions to fight-ing and flight-ing and making all sorts of messes, political and otherwise.

One way to solve this slippery storytelling problem is to slow down our thinking and to ask questions. Constructive, humanizing questions. Asking “why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?” (as the authors of Crucial Conversations advise us to do) opens our eyes to a variety of possibilities, necessarily invites us into that person’s shoes, and can profoundly change not just our internal storytelling, but our feelings and actions as a result. Learning to slow down and double-check our stories is a skill that might just save society. It’s hard to categorize and demean others when we habitually seek understanding.

The first time I read They All Saw a Cat, I was charmed by the art—it’s colorful, rich, varied, and fun. But I was moved by how the book gently invited me—and my kids—to see something as ordinary as a house cat through many points of view. (Sorry, cats, for calling you "ordinary.")

How can I teach my kids the skill of perspective-taking and attentiveness to their internal storytelling? Not by telling them, not by verbal persuasion. (You know how well “telling” works.) But through the medium of story itself. The genius of good art—stories and music included—is that it not only leaves room for our imagination but it demands it. It doesn’t lead with its own moral, but invites us into the fray. It rewards curiosity and contemplation with growth and meaning.

How does a cat look to a mouse? To a flea? To a bee? These are genuinely interesting, provocative, instructive questions—just ask a kid. Try it. It’s hard to see a cat in the same way after asking good questions.

By adapting They All Saw a Cat for narrator and orchestra, I hope I’m providing the opportunity for kids and their grownups to playfully meditate on these questions while also they experience the incredible human achievement of orchestral music. 

Next time you catch yourself—or your little people—jumping to conclusions, try asking “how does a cat look to a mouse?”