Monday, March 31, 2003

I am much comforted after reading Alice Thomas Ellis's A Welsh Childhood. I've always loved reading memoirs, but they make me feel slightly inferior for not being able to remember every detail of my childhood. Unlike Proust or Marcel Pagnol, who seem to recall perfectly conversations held decades before, Ellis is refreshingly honest. While remembering an uncle who was wonderfully funny and always kept her in stitches, she admits that none of the things he said remain with her. At the end of the first part, which describes her idiosyncratic childhood, she remarks, "I have absolutely no faith in history since my memory of my own is so vague, conflicting and confused... if it wasn't for remembering the clothes she wore I would doubt that [my child self] ever existed." I'm inclined to agree, at least with the part about mistrusting history.

The second part of the book I found a little more interesting, perhaps because it was less scattered. It takes up after her marriage and production of seven children, following the difficulties of managing her own offspring as well as several strays in a damp and ancient house in the hills. Because they had no fridge or any way of getting to the shops regularly, cooking options were limited and her descriptions of everyday meals made me cringe (spam curry?!?). Everything was hard, and there were always crises, yet she remembers the time fondly, recognizing that it was happy despite outward appearances. It made me realize that perhaps a lot of parenting struggles today arise from having too few children. That sounds strange, but when there are so many small bodies that all one can do is "throw pieces of cheese at them as they run through the kitchen on some important mission", there's less time to worry about whether they're getting all the things they need.

After spending my work hours with children who have been raised with the best intentions so that every creative or imaginative impulse is carefully directed towards a more productive pursuit, it was refreshing to visit a friend last weekend when I was in Colorado. The above quote came from her as we sat in her kitchen surrounded by happy busy children amusing themselves with books, drawing, stick horses, animals, and musical instruments. Of course they are loved and given as much attention as possible, but more importantly they are allowed to discover the world for themselves. Children like these and like Ellis's may certainly come up with games or pursuits that seem questionable to an adult's eye (I can think of several from my own childhood that must have made my mother gulp a little, but I'm grateful that she didn't try to intervene), but in doing so they learn to think for themselves.

I read an article in Focus on the Family magazine the other day that spurred this train of thought, as the author listed results from a study on parenting and the things parents believe their children need to be taught--honesty, religious faith, prudence, and other such "values". It all comes back to the Meno, I suppose; Socrates' understanding that virtue simply cannot be taught should be more widely circulated. Everyone agrees that children learn by example and imitation, yet so many parents worry about how to teach and guide their offspring. I've come to believe that if one already possesses the qualities desirable for children to acquire, and believes them completely, they will be apparent in every action and thus available for children to observe and assimilate. If one builds a good house on a strong foundation, everyone around will be able to see it.

Reading Ellis's book only strengthened this burgeoning idea in my brain. The whole family is happier when the children are given, while not absolute license, the freedom to live and play and learn on their own. There is much that they do need to be taught, but it should never be done in a condescending or hypocritical manner. Give them the tools to become free citizens, and then let God and nature do their work. Instead of worrying about whether your children are being taught the proper "values", keep busy making sandwiches, as Ellis did, and try to appreciate happiness when you've got it.

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