Parenting is harder than you might expect.
There are of course all the anticipated things: bodily fluids, crying, tantrums, boo-boos, teething, biting, food on the floor.
Mental gymnastics and hostage-negotiations come later, over bedtime, baths, clothes, homework, clubs, chores, birthday parties, AND EVEN MORE! YAY!
And then there are the things that are unexpected.
Like how Laura Ingalls Wilder is trying to mess* me up. Now, I understand that little Laura Ingalls was raised in a different time (we’ll call that Era 1) and that her books were published in another time (Era 2) and we live in still another time (Era 3).
However, in my mind, ideal children’s literature–or any literature–can transcend the whole “era” issue. That’s what turns them into classics.
Take E.B. White’s books. He also grew up in Era 1 (or maybe Era 1.5, as compared to Laura Ingalls), but he wrote in Era 2. Even now, in Era 3, it stands up. The language is a little dated, perhaps–I tried to explain to Miss M that while “gay” does, in fact, mean “happy,” now it’s old-fashioned–but the stories of humans interacting with nature, the suffusion of ethics…these messages seem as important now as they did in 1925 or 1955 or 1970.
But I digress. Back to the Little House books. I read Little House in the Big Woods to Miss M, a chapter at a time. She was enthralled, as I had been as a child. (Making candy with snow! Bears in the woods! Corncob dolls!) I personally found it a little boring this go-round; 10 pages of Pa making bullets and loading his rifle was…long to read out loud.
A friend passed down the next few books of the series, and we started Little House on the Prairie the other day. I read two chapters out loud, then got into bed with it to vet the rest. And I was a little horrified by Ma’s blatant racism. “I don’t like Indians.” Having never met an Indian. Of course.
This troubled me to an extreme degree. I mean, this is Ma. The woman gave up her fancy life in Boston to live in a cabin in Wisconsin, where she cleans, cooks, bakes, gardens, sews, and works from sun-up to sun-down every single day. She makes her own everything from scratch. She is superwoman. Then she packs her life into a covered wagon and leaves the small, distant support system she has to go to the middle of nowhere. Literally. (No offense to anyone from Kansas.)
So for Ma to pronounce “I don’t like Indians” and wash her hands of the entire subject makes me a little crazy. I understand that there is historical context, that she’s scared for her life and the lives of her loved ones, that she is perhaps unsure that the Ingalls family is acting correctly when they take the idea of Manifest Destiny literally into their very hands. But none of this is explained. Probably because the book is written from the perspective of a six year old.
But I have my own six year old. And we are trying to figure out how to teach her about race, and not judging people based on how they look or where they come from, or why saying “I don’t like Sephardim” (Jews originally from southern Europe, north Africa or the Middle East) is not a phrase you throw around anywhere but especially in Israel, where there are tons of Sephardim. Issues of race and class have the same prickly feelings here as they do in America.
When Miss M reports that she is just repeating what a friend said, I want to cry. Because wouldn’t the friend, a ditzy six year old like her, have to get that idea from somewhere? Like…her family? The people we see at synagogue every week?
Just, wow, we have a lot of talking to do. I am not sure how to present it. This is the child who envisions herself being rich and entitled and served when she grows up. How will that translate to the idea that people who look different on the outside are the same (anatomically speaking) on the inside? Maybe that’s the way to start…logic is not Miss M’s strong suit, but we will have to begin somewhere. Because while perhaps the adult Laura Ingalls writing about the child Laura Ingalls can see past Ma’s racism, I’m not entirely sure my six year old can.
PS I am against banning books. While I currently have a heavy hand in what Miss M reads (alone and together), it goes without saying that one day she will have free run of our library and whatever else is out in the big bad world. I guess I would like to keep her away from the scary hard stuff for a little while longer, but better that she sees it with a guide instead of on her own.
PPS Some of what we’re experiencing with Miss M now is what many people experience with a child of around 4. “Why does s/he look different/strange/weird?” She was usually wrapped up in her self or her own…whatever (chasing imaginary butterflies or some such) at that age, so we didn’t have to deal with it then.
* This is not the word that originally came to mind. But this is a family blog. Usually.