In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Life lessons, and a little more Little House

Dear Aunt Debbie,

When describing her school reading, Eleanor sometimes refers to "lesson books": books which she sees as obviously teaching a lesson or having a moral.  The most recent of these she's mentioned was called A Week Without TV (I think this is it, though I can't find a review or image online to be sure).  She recounted the plot: a boy is upset when his family's TV breaks. On each page, the text has him talking about how sad it is not to have television to watch, but the pictures show him engaged in all kinds of creative activities: drawing, playing with toys, building block towers. When the TV is finally repaired and his father asks if he wants to come watch it, the boy responds that he's too busy, and there's a picture of him fully engaged with the city he's built.

"It's a lesson book," Eleanor said, not dismissing it entirely -- she enjoyed it enough to recount the whole thing at home -- but qualifying it. The book's  purpose was clear to her, and it wasn't primarily about enjoyment of character, language, or story.

Your discussion of Thank You, Mama, has me thinking about the difference between "lesson books" and books which impart moral or behavioral lessons in more subtle ways.

As I wrote recently, we're spending a lot of time right now with the Little House books, a world rich with possibility for discussing manners and morals.  Laura, her older sister Mary, and her future husband Almanzo, in Farmer Boy, are growing up in houses where they're expected to do a hefty number of chores without complaint (this is especially true of Almanzo and his siblings, who are older than the Ingalls children in the first few books) and to be unfailingly polite to adults. Children don't speak to adults unless spoken to, especially at the dinner table. There's a heavy sense of the importance of self-sacrifice, especially coming from Laura's mother, Ma, who many people seem to feel is a wet blanket. In one episode in
Little House on the Prairie
, Laura and Mary go with Pa to explore an abandoned Indian camp. They discover beautiful beads scattered in the dirt, and each girl collects a large handful. When they return to their cabin, Mary (who Laura feels is obnoxiously good) says she's going to give her beads to Baby Carrie.
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say.  Laura didn’t want to say anything.  She wanted to keep those pretty beads.  Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl.  But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was. So she said, slowly, “Carrie can have mine, too.” “That’s my unselfish, good little girls,” said Ma.
I hoped that Ma might appreciate Laura and Mary's willingness to sacrifice, but then let them keep the beads themselves -- they have so little!  But no, Ma has them string the beads for Carrie and then puts them away, because Carrie is too young and might break them. Laura is made to feel bad for wanting something of her own, and internalizes her desire as something bad:
And often after that Laura thought of those pretty beads and she was still naughty enough to want her beads for herself.
A far cry from the current feminist message of Sheryl Sandberg and her ilk....

There are obviously aspects of this way of raising kids that I don't agree with. We like it when our children speak up, and encourage them to be comfortable interacting with adults. I've never felt that instilling total self-sacrifice in my daughters was a good idea. Still, there are moments when our kids complain about cleaning their room or wail over a minor stubbed toe when I've found myself thinking, Why can't you be a little more like Laura and Almanzo?  Of course, I phrase it a little differently if I do invoke them: "Think about all the hard work Almanzo has to do every day.  We all need to pitch in and help here at home, too."  I struggle at times with how to walk that fine line between encouraging empathetic connection and behavioral modeling and spoiling a book we're all enjoying.  I suppose, as with so many other aspects of parenting, it's a balance we'll be working at for a long time.

Love, Annie

1 comment:

  1. I love this. I can't tell you how many times, after reading the Little House books, I would tell my sister, "Let's be good girls, like Mary and Laura." I of course wanted to be Mary.

    Such good memories! It's time to pull these books out for my own daughter.