For five days I’m writing about the most interesting methods people have used throughout history to raise brilliant children of all types. Yesterday I wrote No Mother–No Whips.
Amy Chua, the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother thinks Americans worry too much about emotions–especially kid’s emotions. We throw in the towel the minute our child sheds a tear or feels bad about himself. And, we question ourselves as parents all the time. Also, we think we’ll boost our little angel’s self-esteem by praising her early and often. Chua sees highly accomplished parents “slathering praise on …kids for the lowest of tasks–drawing a squiggle or waving a stick.” To Americans, a child’s self of herself is extremely fragile.
Amy Chua is made of stronger will and thinks her children are also. She seems to ask, So what if kids cry or are hungry or have a headache? Who cares if they want to dable in photography or try out for the school play? Chinese parents have been ignoring their kid’s feelings for centuries and have required the absolute best of them– and at this particular moment in history, they kick our Western butts in any hard discipline. The big difference between us and them, Chua says, is that Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave differently.”
Chua has a point. We tend to think negative emotions are a sign of psychic fragility. We feel sorry for a disappointed child or one with hurt feelings. This hasn’t always been the case in America. One hundred and fifty years ago, tantrums or disproportionate disappointments were signs of unholy strength. ”Suppress. Suppress. Suppress,” was the American mantra–especially for girls and women. Too much crying or laughing, for that matter, was a sign of devil worship.
Read on for one Victorian family’s tale of dealing with one child’s anger, sadness and unbound laughter.
I cringe at the thought of labeling the Alcotts as Victorians. They sure didn’t act like Victorians. First, they paid a whole lot of attention to their daughters when they were little. Most people of their status had servants care for babies. Plus, they sought to learn from their children.
Bronson and Abby Alcott–both true idealists, began studying their daughters at birth. They each kept a notepad around to jot things they noticed about them. Bronson noticed his first child, compliant and angelic all around, smiled directly at him on Day 2. When Louisa May came along 18 months later, he wrote of her ”unusual vivacity, and force of spirit,” and called her “active, vivid, energetic.” He noted her “power, individuality and force.” Abby, also noted Louisa’s temperament in the earliest days. She wrote,
She was a sprightly, merry little puss–quirking up her mouth and cooing at every sound.
But Louisa’s energy was not always positive. Historian Harriet Reisen says,
She was a fitfull infant, an affront to her father’s conviction that newborn children came from heaven trailing clouds of glory.
The contrast between his two girls was so great, Bronson wrote years later,
I once thought all minds in childhood much the same, and that in education lay the power of calling these forth into something of a common accomplishment. But now I see that character is more of a nature than an acquirement, and that the most you can do by culture is to adorn and give external polish to natural gifts.
In the end, the eldest Alcott girl married and lived a quiet happy life. Louisa, however, struggled daily with her roller-coaster emotions, never married but did live the life she loved. At ten years old, she recorded:
I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.
Louisa May Alcott pretty much achieved all that and more in her lifetime.
How did her parents help her?
First, the Alcott children grew up with a Socratic education. Their father answered their questions with his own questions. They were pushed to come up with their own answers to life’s big and small problems.
When Louisa May turned five and both parents got busier, they convinced Elizabeth Peabody –the famous American educator, to board with them. Peabody read Louisa books and taught her games.
Again, historian Harriet Reisen says,
Louisa was surrounded by the best, the brightest, and the friendliest intellectuals of the day. At thirteen she could understand her father’s talks with Thoreau…and when Margaret Fuller came to visit, she could picture herself a grown woman like Fuller, independent, romantic, and literary.
Bronson Alcott’s best friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, worked hard to convince and even financially help friends move into his Concord, Massachusetts neighborhood. So, Louisa took long walks through the woods trailing Thoreau with her friends. He often stopped and talked to them and explained his love of the natural world. She interrupted a writing Ralph Waldo Emerson, when she wanted, to get advice on which book to read next. Then she borrowed it from his vast library.
The mental stimulation Alcott’s parents craved and got, they shared with their children. What they shared little of, was material wealth–because they had none. Bronson Alcott worked hard, for no pay. Every other year, he planned another Utopian community or championed some social cause. Abby, though Bronson’s intellectual equal, delivered babies, worked her knuckles to the bone–for small pay, and humiliated herself in front of family by begging for loans she’d never pay back. The Alcott children often ate bread and drank water for supper.
The biggest gift Abby gave her daughter was constant encouragement to work hard to channel her emotional energy into Creative work.
She did not worry about Louisa’s emotions–really, there was too much else to worry about. But, she did give Louisa her first notebook. She advised her to write when angry. Abby also wrote herself. She made poems for her children, as birthday presents, and asked them to do the same for her. And when Louisa was ten, she told her she expected great things from her as well as financial help in the future.
So Louisa wrote furiously, when angry or despondent. When ecstatic, she’d run through the woods with friends and then come home to write in her little notebook. Louisa May Alcott sold her first article in her early teens and wrote for pay the rest of her life. She authored hundreds of books, but the most famous is the well-loved and never-out-of-print, Little Women.
Maybe we do worry way too much about our childrens’ emotions and self-esteem. I say we get back to helping kids harness their innate wildness towards Creation.