Saturday, September 05, 2009

Because my area of interest is nineteenth-century literature, I sometimes find myself reading texts that can only be described as romantic, sentimental, or even maudlin in their emotional intensity. One thing many nineteenth-century texts have in common is an idealized vision of childhood. While this isn't true across the board (the nineteenth century gave us many memorable, fleshed-out children's characters as well), it's hard not to get bogged down in the sappy sentimentality of the angelic child in the pages of these Victorian novels.


"O, Topsy, poor child, I love you!" said Eva, with a sudden burst of feeling, and laying her little thin, white hand on Topsy's shoulder; "I love you, because you haven't had any father, or mother, or friends;--because you've been a poor, abused child! I love you, and I want you to be good. I am very unwell, Topsy, and I think I shan't live a great while; and it really grieves me, to have you be so naughty. I wish you would try to be good, for my sake;--it's only a little while I shall be with you." --Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

My daughter is, I think, I pretty good kid. She's bright and fun and interested in life. But I don't fool myself into thinking that Charlotte's a special, angelic princess, unsullied by life and sinful impulse. Like all other three-year-olds, Charlotte lacks empathy for others, and that is reflected in her self-centeredness. Again, I emphasize that this is normal three-year-old behavior, and I know that it is. The altruistic angel child of Victorian lit is simply a myth, a projection of idealized innocence.
Charlotte's selfish side comes out on occasion, such as when Jeff goes into her room in the morning instead of the preferred parent (me), and Charlotte responds by whining, saying "NO!" and holding up her hands to block out the very sight of him. Or when I'm trying to get her out the door and I need her to put on her shoes, and she moves across the room at the slowest possible speed at which she could be moving and still be considered in motion, like the glass in the windows of ancient cathedrals, seeping slowly downward molecule by molecule. And then when I ask her to please hurry up, she responds, "What!? I'm coming, see?"

"Merry Christmas, Marmee! Many of them! Thank you for our books; we read some, and mean to every day," they cried, in chorus.
"Merry Christmas, little daughters! I'm glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little new-born baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there; and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?"
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke; only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously,
"I'm so glad you came before we began!"
"May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?" asked Beth, eagerly.
--Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Today, we were all sitting around in the living room. Sam was sitting on his blanket on the floor, happily playing and babbling, surrounded by a ring of drool-bedecked toys. Jeff was reading on the couch, and I was making a grocery list on the chair nearby. Charlotte ran back and forth, singing, cavorting, and keeping up her usual running commentary. Then she paused in front of Sam, reached out, and shoved him over.
Sam, to his credit, was unaffected by his sudden move from semi-vertical to horizontal, as it's something that happens rather regularly on his own. On the other hand, I was horrified. Charlotte has never been an aggressive kid. She never bit, and I can count on one hand the number of times she's lashed out by hitting or kicking. But this was a deliberately malicious move. And she knew it.
"Charlotte!" I exclaimed. "What did you do?" Something about my tone, the cocktail of shock, shame, and urgency, drew Jeff's attention to the incident. He caught Charlotte as she was sprinting for the kitchen. (As an aside, that's something she does to avoid me when she's in trouble for some reason--runs for another room. Another thing she does is close her eyes. While staying put. As though if she can't see me, my anger doesn't exist.) Jeff carried Charlotte back over by me as I repeated the question.
Charlotte, standing in front of me, refused to answer or look me in the eye. Instead, gazing off into the middle distance, she asked, "What are you going to do?"
Now, if she had tacked on "about it" to the end of that inquiry, I would have been concerned. As it was, this question just demonstrated the three-year-old's natural selfish concerns--what's going to happen to me? How will I be dealt with?
I told Charlotte that we don't hit, push or hurt each other, and that if she did it again, ever, to anyone, not just Sam, she would be punished. And I told her how disappointing this was to me, that she would do something on purpose that could hurt someone. One thing I didn't do, though, was ask her to apologize. One of those hippie kiddie-psychologist articles Jeff or I read claimed that forcing kids to apologize actually postpones altruistic tendencies, so we don't ask Charlotte to, although we do try to model apologizing ourselves.


"Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?"--Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Things went back to normal. I righted Sam again and placed him amid his drool-toys. Jeff sat back down, and Charlotte continued playing. As she ran past Sam, on occasion she'd make a point of patting him gently on the head, like a beloved pet, while making eye contact with me, as if to say "See, Mom? I'm a good big sister!"
After a few more minutes, I saw Charlotte stop in front of Sam again. She squatted down and looked him in the eyes and said something, quietly. Then she smiled at him, got up, and skipped away. Not once did she look at me.
What she said was "Sorry, Sam."
It's not empathy, but it's a start.


Miz Jean said...

Yay! Because I am not alone in the parenting of a spunky toddler and because she apologized on her own! :)

momdadtig said...

LOVED this story. Oh, if only I could make MY troubles go away by closing my eyes....but I guess she really can't either.....not when she has such great parents.

Jennifer Vorkavich said...

This post was particularly well-written. I like the interspersed quotes. I too love 19th century British lit, though only in a amateur capacity.

Have you read much by George MacDonald? He certainly has some idealized child characters, but some who are very well-rounded and not at all innocent (I'm thinking of short story "The Wise Woman" or even "The Princess and Curdie").

I love hearing Charlotte stories, too, btw.

Anonymous said...

A woman after my own heart (though I'm a modernist). I loved teaching _Turn of the Screw_ while hugely pregnant, suggesting to my students that as a culture (I suppose I'm referring to Anglo-American culture) we are terrified of children in general, and that's why they are always communing with ghosts in our texts. Because children's actions are so inscrutable, we come up with stories of ghosts with mysterious intentions (or even, like ToftS, stories where we're not even sure there are ghosts).

Every time I suggested that kids.are.scary.omg! They are both impossibly innocent and impishly close to the other-wordly! My students kept cracking up and asking me how I was going to handle it if my (then unborn) child ended up having a creepy imaginary friend.

(still don't know--hopefully you'll get there first and blog about it so, like the shoving incident, I'll know how to handle it!)