It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Truly awful read

One of the books the children chose from the library this week is Jenny Offill’s “17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore”. I will not be reading it to the children. (Not that children are its intended audience, anyway: it’s a poke at parents.)

It’s supposed to be the story of a bright and mischievous little girl who gets into a serious of scraps through her curiosity and creativity. And there are a few points at which that is what is really happening:

“I had an idea to dedicate my report to all beavers that ever lived.
I’m not allowed to dedicate my report to beavers anymore.”

“I had an idea to walk backward all the way home from school.
I’m not allowed to … ”
“I had an idea to freeze a dead by in the ice cube tray.”
I’m not allowed to …”
“I had an idea to wash my hands in the dog’s bowl before dinner.”
“I’m not allowed to …”

Walking backwards — if you do it as she evidently does, without casting careful glances over her shoulder — is unsafe; washing hands in dog water and making dead-fly ice cubes are unhygenic, but all are the sorts of funny things that lively, creative kids do. (I’m not sure what’s wrong with dedicating a report to beavers.) There are other ways the adults could have responded than by making yet another arbitrary “you may not” rule. So yes, here you have a lively, creative kid doing cute and unconventional things, and being pressed into the mold of conventionality by boring adults.

But then there are these items:

“I had an idea to staple my brother’s hair to his pillow.
… to glue my brother’s slippers to the floor.
… to tell my brother he’d soon be eaten by hyenas.
… to throw cauliflower at my brother at dinner.”

All of which, judging by the pictures, cause her younger brother evident distress and sometimes real physical pain. In each case she is told she may not do whatever the offense was any more. But these are not the same as the other offenses. These are not a lively, creative kid being unconventional, or at least, not merely. These are examples of a lively, creative kid being unkind and insensitive.

This is the problem with Rule-Based Parenting, of course. You end up with a million teeny-tiny specific rules, which, with no governing rational, can seem entirely random and arbitrary to the child.

What is required is a little Principle-Based Parenting. How about, instead of “You may not” rules, we have some “We always try” principles?

So, instead of “you may not do X, Y, Z to your brother”, there would be a discussion and explanation. “In our family, we always try to be kind to each other.” There would be focus on the impact of her actions on her poor brother. “We try never to do something that will make another person sad, or actually hurt them.” Further misadventures would then be evaluated with this rubric: “Do you think your brother is happy now? Or is he frightened?”

She is rude to her mother at a couple of points. How about, instead of “you may not pretend your mother is a waitress”, we have “you will treat mommy with respect” — which would also include not sticking her fingers in her ears and pretending to be deaf when her mother speaks.

The author seems not to see this distinction. Any attempt to mold a child’s actions, no matter what their actions and no matter what the actions’ effects on other people’s health and happiness, is arbitrary and stifling of the creativity and energy of innocent children. (Because children are always kind and sweet and gentle and loving in their innocence, aren’t they?)

But the worst part of the book? The really, really appalling bit?

“I had an idea to say the opposite of what I mean to trick everyone.”

The picture shows her saying “I’m sorry” to her mother, who is hugging her in gracious, grateful love and forgiveness.

The last line of the book?

“I am allowed to say the opposite of what I mean forevermore.”

Apparently Ms. Offill believes that expecting kindness, respect, and consideration for others is merely teaching a child hypocrisy. Further, that such hypocrisy is only the natural, reasonable outcome of these expectations, for which the child can not be held accountable. Obviously, the fault is in the soul-deadening conventionalities of the soul-dead adults around her bright liveliness.

Kindness? Respect? Consideration? Empathy?

Shame on us for expecting such things!

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 13 Comments