Shielding our children

I wrote this three years ago, but not for this weblog.

Awhile back we discovered the Little Britches series of books and fell in love with them, so much so that we immediately added them to the bookstore. It wasn’t too long before someone bought the first book and then wrote a very kind email telling me that while he was reading it aloud to his children he was dismayed to find that one of the characters takes the Lord’s name in vain several times. Our customer was disappointed because he had expected that we wouldn’t be selling such a book. I apologized, sent him a refund, told him he could either pass the book along or just destroy it, and added a caution about language to the Little Britches catalog description.

I’m not in the business of establishing guidelines for how other families should shield their children, and so I thought that customer’s expectation was reasonable because he had come by it honestly; nothing in his email suggested that he thought I was wrong or sinful to sell such a book. Neither do I think he is wrong, sinful, prudish, or overly pious in wanting to shield his children from such language. I did feel bad that I had inadvertently put that book in his hands due to the lack of a language warning that was easy to add once I thought of it. And I wondered again, as I have many, many times before and since, whether I have set the boundaries properly for my own children.

(For the record, when I read something like Little Britches aloud I will edit the language on the fly, because I am uncomfortable saying such things aloud, and uncomfortable having my children hear their father say them. But I will generally let my children read books with such language to themselves, expecting them to understand that we don’t approve of such language and don’t use it ourselves.)

One of our favorite book series is The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, stories about growing up Gentile in Mormon Utah around the turn of the twentieth century. Not only do they paint a delightful picture of frontier life, they are some of the funniest stories I’ve ever read, centering around the escapades of Fitzgerald’s older brother Tom, a boy whose genius generally outstrips his moral sense. Outside of his extreme cleverness there isn’t much to admire about Tom; he is no role model. And the stories are morally neutral towards him. Outrageous behavior is neither applauded nor denounced, just described (to hilarious effect). Sometimes Tom gets his comeuppance, but often he gets away scot-free.

I was always a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, owning a number of the collections. The older kids have all gone through a phase (sometimes multiple times) when they will sit for hours reading through the strips. When I talk to them about Calvin’s behavior, they seem to be both amused and horrified, laughing at its outrageousness while still having a strong sense that it is outrageous. They do not admire Calvin in any way (or the parents, who are about as dysfunctional as their son).

Right now we are reading aloud two books by Eleanor Frances Lattimore about Little Pear, a six-year-old boy in rural China; it’s for Elizabeth, Jerry, and Benjamin, although the older ones (who have heard the stories before) somehow manage to be in earshot for them. I love these stories for the excellent job they do of relating the tale through a child’s eyes, the sometimes crazy situations taking on a childlike matter-of-factness; e.g. it’s no big deal to Little Pear that he begins walking to the city many miles away, catches a lift from a friendly man who carries him there on his shoulders, then sends him back to his village with a friend who delivers him late at night to his parents.

The kids love them too, and a large part of their delight comes from their astonishment at Little Pear’s disobedience. Even more, they think it’s laughable that the stories usually end with Little Pear’s parents deciding not to spank him because they are so relieved he is OK.

After hearing such admissions I am sure some parents would think I am doing a poor job of shielding my children from bad influences. Maybe I am. I haven’t thought through my reasons for thinking that this kind of exposure to bad behavior in others is harmless, but I don’t think they been done any harm, and suspect it may have done them some good.


4 thoughts on “Shielding our children

  1. My child rearing practice didn’t so much resemble the raising of hot house roses or bonsai, as it did tending a field of wild flowers. They turned out to be resilient, flexible and happy.

  2. We were just laughing yesterday about some of the antics done in our own family after a child has read The Great Brain. Some bit of swindling younger siblings out of paraphernalia mostly. One story about who got to wear a Braves hat which was a birthday gift to the Braves game. It was not the birthday boy. So I guess The Great Brain is a terrible read and yet I think the new-made swindlers usually learn that their brains aren’t quite big enough to pull off the lifestyle and we have a cache of funny family stories. Not a bad trade-off.

  3. Lee,

    Hot house roses vs. wildflowers is not an either-or choice, but the two ends of a spectrum. You can grow in a greenhouse exclusively. You can start your plants in a greenhouse, take them out into the weather to harden them off, then eventually transplant them into the ground. You can plant seed in the ground, water it or not, weed it or not. We’re always grateful for the harvest that comes from volunteer plants, but it isn’t reliable.


    We would have denied ourselves lots of joy if we hadn’t learned to read books or watch movies that explore ground outside our normal boundaries. Lately Debbie and I and the three oldest have been watching the Fawlty Towers series—studying it, really, with the help of John Cleese’s commentaries—and we find ourselves far past the point of periodically reminding ourselves, “These folks really are behaving badly, you know, and there ought to be a moral, and …” We just think it is the funniest twelve half-hours ever to be filmed, and that the characters can be taken as they are without a cautionary dose of piety.

  4. Oh for the days when cussing was the worst thing… :)

    My family smokes, drinks, and cusses in front of the children, and I almost went with thinking— that yes, we must protect our children from this horrible evil. Then I got over myself. And am still getting over my self-righteousness, a far greater sin I expose my children to.

    I have met Elsie Dinsmore in real life, but I much prefer to parent Little Pear and Curious George.

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