GUEST BLOG POST: Are We Doing Too Much For Our Kids? by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
You cut your child’s sandwich. You know the routine. He wants the crusts off the bread and the bread halved. Then it goes to wanting the sandwich quartered. That passes muster for awhile until he decides that under no circumstances should any peanut butter and jelly or melted cheese be allowed to ooze from the sandwich. So it’s a go around with the side of a knife, wiping with a napkin in between. And then, of course, no other food may touch it. On it goes until you feel enslaved to “the great dictator” who just happens to be your own child.
I kept thinking about how all this catering to children just leads to fussiness and further demands as I read Yona Zeldis McDonnough’s new children’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Author in the Big Woods (Henry Holt, 2014). As a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved Little House on the Prairie books from which the popular TV show came, helped her parents on their farms, taking the cow out to pasture every night, did housework, cooking, tended to the younger children, and went to school (a rarity for a girl in the 1800’s), and she excelled! Oh, and when her sister, Mary, went blind, Laura held her hand wherever they went, telling her all that she saw.
Is it fair to compare a pioneer child with our own? Children weren’t the luxuries they are today. They were needed to help the family survive. Infant mortality was so high that they had to have lots of kids to insure having a couple and birth control was the tried, but untrue rhythm method. Often infants were called “Little Stranger” until they were at least three, a kind of distancing to make it hurt less if they died, although I doubt it actually did. With so many children, older siblings had to take on childcare responsibilities and all sorts of other chores. And they did without a fuss. Thinking of pioneer children such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, couldn’t our kids cut be encouraged to cut their own sandwiches, say, even with a plastic knife? And what about, at appropriate ages, learning the ropes of emptying the dishwasher or making their own beds?
How do we make the switch from catering to our kids to having them want to pitch in?
One of my favorite books from my childhood was The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. The scene I loved best was when Mrs. Pepper got her little ones to dust the furniture by hiding pennies on chair legs, arm rests, beneath doilies on cabinet tops…and the kids dusted like crazy to find them. I was so thrilled by it that I asked my mother to hide pennies and managed to find all of them and also five bucks my father had dropped from his pocket that I never told anyone about! I became the “family duster.” Also, wash-and-wear clothing wasn’t popular back in my day. I became the family ironer by setting up the board in front of the TV and ironing away. Sure, collars didn’t always stand up, and sleeves had puckers, but I could have ironed for hours. Rewards rock! But it’s best to find one that actually fits the task, such as helping to clean the kitchen after baking cookies together.
And the amount of stuff we buy our kids often takes away from their initiative and imagination, never mind the toll to the environment from all that plastic and the endless cries for more and more toys. Laura Ingalls Wilder made dolls out of corn husks (how-to included in the book) and played games of Jack Straws which was like pickup sticks, but with thin twigs, and outside they would run after hoops, or if you really wanted a game that required nothing, Shadow Tag was it. You ran around, trying to step on one another’s shadow. Even though there was Play-Do when my kids were young, they used to love making their own with cream of tartar, salt, flour, and food coloring. Here’s a recipe for it that I found on the internet. http://www.instructables.com/id/Easy-Affordable-Play-Dough/
There’s better advice to be given by “experts” I’m sure, but reading a book like Little Author in the Big Woods can open your eyes, and your childrens’ to how full life can feel and how much esteem can come from helping yourself and helping out.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Kaylee’s Ghost, an Indie finalist. Her collection of short stories, What I Wish You’d Told Me (Shebooks, 3024) is just out. She’s published in The New York Times (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), and her award-winning poetry and short stories have appeared in such magazines as Moment, The Iowa Review, and The MacGuffin. She teaches writing online at UCLA Extension. Visit http://rochellejewelshapiro.com.