Teaching Children to Love Being Sons & Daughters
by Vigen Guroian
One summer when our son Rafi was just two years old, June and I vacationed with my brother and sister-in-law at the New Jersey shore. As the five of us were crossing the main thoroughfare one afternoon, Rafi threw a tantrum. In that dangerous location, with cars and trucks speeding by a foot or two away from us, he was completely out of control.
My brother scolded me harshly for not having disciplined the boy better. If dogs could be trained to wait patiently to cross a street, he said, why couldn’t I teach a two-year-old boy to do it? Needless to say, when my brother’s own children came into this world, he learned that children are not dogs.
A Thief or a Judge
It is no small task to teach children rules and cultivate in them a desire to observe and obey the law. The rules for correct human conduct certainly are more complex and the results more expansive and less predictable than with a dog. The dog may be taught to obey the leash near to perfection, but he remains in all other respects a creature of instinct, so that the English setter stubbornly points when scent or sound is near and the Border collie circles and herds whomever and whatever is in her vicinity.
Human freedom is a power of self-transcendence. One might even go so far as to say that the self is a creative and transformative act, as a philosopher might put it. Morality transcends mere animal behavior because it involves freedom and choice, whereas animal behavior is the necessary and determinate response of the creature to its environment. In other words, the child who is taught right from wrong remains free to become a thief or a judge, or, and this is no small matter, a good father or mother.
Thus, the parent who tries to train his child as he would a dog, so that the child makes the choices he would make and becomes what he envisions him to become, not only acts tyrannically but may be disappointed in the results. The parent who teaches his child to know and love the rules in order that he learn to navigate out of harm’s way and toward the desired good is not only being true to the vocation of parenthood but also realistic about his influence over his child.
The Pruned Child
Morality is connatural to human nature; that is, acting morally is what we would do were it not for sin, were we not so distracted and disoriented by our own egocentricity, bad habits, and corrupted imagination. But we are distracted and disoriented, and in order to grow into a morally healthy and upright individual, the human child needs the human equivalent of pruning—not the equivalent of dog training.
He needs to be taught the rules of conduct and given the discipline that helps him follow them freely and happily, knowing what they are for. “Children have more life than we have; the only thing they lack is law,” as G. K. Chesterton reminded us.
This having been said, however, parents are wise to regard rules minimalistically. Rules and law do not cover all things: Following the rules is not all that makes a person moral. Rules and law are not the heart and soul of morality. The old legalism that thinks it can cover every contingency of life with rules and sanctions is just as flawed as the reformist doctrine that thinks that all one need do is teach children to think for themselves and they will act morally.
Equally important, children rest almost all that they know in trust. They associate truth with trust, trust in someone. What father, while reading a fairy tale to his child, has not been asked the question: “Is he a good or bad king?” To earnestly and successfully strive for goodness, truth, and beauty throughout our lives, we need to be initiated into these things at an early age by persons we trust, whose good example we want to follow.
These persons are parents and often grandparents. For a child, the reliable and regular presence of parents is every bit as important, nay, more important, than instruction in rules of conduct. The effectiveness of communicating the great truths of life to children is far more dependent upon consistent and reliable parental presence than many modern folk want to believe.
Teaching children, said Chesterton, “is all a matter of tone and implication. . . . It is not the things you say which children respect; when you say things, they commonly laugh and do the opposite. It is the things you assume that really sink into them. It is the things you forget even to teach that they learn.”
The Complete Child
This final observation leads straight to the principal concern of this essay: The complete reality of the child can be comprehended only when the child is regarded in his or her role and relationship as son or daughter to parents. These together form a fundamental relationship without which neither parenthood nor childhood is whole or healthy. It is not primarily a matter of learning “the rules of parenting” or drilling the child in “the rules of childhood.”
Postmodernists insist that childhood is merely a social construct of controlling the weak (children) to serve the purposes of the strong (adults). They have put their finger on something without knowing it. Not that children and childhood are social conventions of an old world that is in eclipse. Not that human social reality is explained principally in terms of power relations. But that the child disappears from view when parental presence and authority are absent or removed, when the parent-and-child “nexus” is ruptured and broken, as it is so frequently and in so many ways today.
The often-spoken-of crisis of childhood is just half the problem. The other half is a crisis of parenthood. And undermining both childhood and parenthood is our modern idea of freedom. Freedom is not, as we think, a possession of the autonomous self, the ability to do whatever we wish without restraint or responsibility. If it were, the traditional parent would be a tyrant and the child would be a slave.
We must learn to think of child and parent together. We must learn to think of them not as a pair in which one is free and the other is not, but as a unit in which one exercises freedom in the service of the other and the other learns to be free by freely submitting to the other.
In offering an answer to these twinned crises of childhood and parenthood, I propose that we think of childhood and parenthood as two thoroughly interdependent offices of life. It is easier in our day, when we construct models of human behavior and ethics on the presumption of adulthood, to imagine what might be meant as the office of father or mother. It is less natural for us to imagine what the offices of son and daughter could mean.
There can be no useful talk of the office of son or daughter apart from the offices of father and mother. The heart of being a child is to learn responsible freedom toward one’s parents. The heart of being a parent is to offer one’s child presence, authority, and love. If we keep this in mind, even modern parents can begin to see what it might mean to speak of the office of son or daughter.
The Latin roots of “office” give it the connotations of duty and even sacrifice for others. At the base is the Latin word officium. It denotes performance of a task. Officium is the compound of opus, which means “work,” and ficere, which means “to make” or “to do.” So here we have a word that in its etymology suggests work, task, and duty exercised principally on behalf of others. “Office” grounds goodness and character solidly in community and even in a political world. This grounding rescues goodness from becoming merely an abstraction, a high ideal, or being equated with modern psychological notions of self-fulfillment and personal autonomy.
The idea of office reminds us that goodness is “no good” unless it obtains a “form,” a “body,” and an abiding purpose that transcends the self. Goodness is not some “thing” that the individual possesses. It is the product of virtuous behavior that binds together a human community.
For children, this community is the family, first and foremost. When a boy or girl conscientiously embraces the duty and responsibilities of the office of being a son or daughter, he or she is rendered more truly human.
The Selfish Boy
Let me give some examples from popular culture. For more than a decade, in evening courses and workshops on children’s literature and in my undergraduate seminar, I have read and discussed with others a popular children’s book of the 1960s, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, published in 1963. Parents and grandparents in my evening courses have opined that The Giving Tree is emblematic of all that went wrong with the “me generation.” They have argued, vociferously at times, that this book is a quintessentially sixties statement of lenient and permissive parenthood that we now know failed.
Perhaps more surprisingly, my undergraduate students have weighed in similarly. Many criticize The Giving Tree as a poor model for the relation of parent and child. Opinions are mixed, but a significant majority object to the book. They do not like the boy in Silverstein’s story, or the tree, for that matter. They view the boy as selfish, insensitive, and spoiled by the anthropomorphized tree, and view the tree as the epitome of a permissive and destructively indulgent parent.
This is tough speech. More importantly, it is an interesting turn in the legacy and reception of a book that every informed and up-to-date parent of the sixties and seventies was expected to read to his child and that got read to young children in tens of thousands of nursery and elementary school classrooms.
About a decade ago, a symposium on The Giving Tree was carried in the monthly journal First Things. One of the distinguished participants, Jean Bethke Elshtain, recalled the angry response of her adult daughter and mother of a new baby girl to the book. When Elshtain first gave the book to her daughter, the daughter exclaimed enthusiastically: “Shel Silverstein. He’s pretty famous, isn’t he?”
But after reading The Giving Tree, she called it “ a vicious book.” Elshtain asked her daughter to explain. She responded:
In fairness, other contributors to the symposium maintained that The Giving Tree is a very positive story about unconditional love, especially a mother’s love. And some of my students have commented similarly. Yet what I find most striking about this admittedly unscientific sampling is not the difference of opinion but the weight of opinion that The Giving Tree communicates the wrong message, not only to children but to parents as well.
A Loving Slap
Several summers ago, one of the cable movie stations aired a beautiful and almost forgotten film entitled America, America, released the same year The Giving Tree came out. Written, produced, and directed by Elia Kazan, America, America is based on the story of Kazan’s own immigrant family.
The protagonist is a Greek youth named Stavros, who grows up in the Anatolian region of Turkey and dreams of going to the United States. Filmed in black and white, the film has a documentary quality about it, and Kazan presented a haunting picture of the hard and oppressed conditions that the Greek and Armenian minority Christian communities endured within Turkey at the turn of the twentieth century.
Full of youthful bravado and abandon, Stavros resists the injustice of Ottoman rule and seeks to leave the Old World behind for the New World’s promise. Early in the film, he becomes dangerously entangled in the misfortunes of local Armenians being rounded up by the Turkish police. Family members drag him home, and his mother chastises him for putting himself in harm’s way. His father leads Stavros into a back room and strikes him hard on the face. After a brief pause, the father then embraces his son, kisses him on both cheeks, and consoles him.
The action is startling for its apparent contradiction. Yet it is a perfectly consistent portrayal of traditional parental love and authority. Punishment is swift and sure, yet lined with strong gestures of affection. The form this love takes and the manner in which such authority is exercised may not please our modern sensibilities, but the contrast with contemporary permissiveness at the very least exposes the latter’s weaknesses.
There is no tedious negotiation and haggling over who is to blame, who is in charge, or what is the punishment. Justice is swift, love is strong, and the relation of father and son well defined.
In Stavros’s culture, the eldest son is obligated to assume responsibility for the well-being of his family, and his single-minded pursuit of getting to America may seem a selfish denial of his responsibility. But his sense of office within the family is the glue that holds his two goals (to serve his family and to make a new life in America) together. He combines his personal dream with the goal of finding the means to liberate his entire family.
The Son & the Boy
Stavros’s father senses his son’s restlessness and imposes a hard task on him to divert him from his goal. He tells him to take all of the family’s wealth to an uncle in Constantinople, who will invest it. The investment will enable the entire family to move to the city, where life will be better for all.
Though it will keep him from making his way to America, Stavros accepts the burden of his station (his office) as eldest son. But he does not surrender his goal of reaching America—not even after he is tricked, beaten, and robbed of all the family wealth on his long journey to Constantinople. And when he reaches America with nothing but the shirt on his back, he sends to his family the fifty dollars that an American lady friend gives him, as a sign of the earnestness of his love and intentions.
The film chronicles Stavros’s struggle to overcome his personal flaws and shortcomings and grow into those habits of character—courage and prudence, trust and perspicacity, patience and perseverance—that he needs to survive and succeed. Though he fulfills the duties of his office, there is no certainty that he will hold up, that in the end he will not become cynical or ruthless.
The viewer is painfully aware that the whole story has not been told. In America, America, Kazan raises the hard questions about growing into manhood and makes it clear that moral character can be either forged or consumed in the heated furnace of the human comedy.
Compare this to The Giving Tree. The boy in The Giving Tree asks for and takes all that the tree can give: its leaves, its fruit, its limbs, and its trunk. We cannot be sure whether he ever marries and has children. He says he wants a family and needs the tree’s wood to build a house for them, but having gotten the wood, he never again mentions a family. He makes virtually every one of his demands to satisfy his own desires. For long stretches he abandons the tree, which Silverstein tells us makes the tree “sad,” but in the end he returns to the tree a crooked, tired, lonely old man.
America, America is an ennobling tale of passage that defies the standard Hollywood formula of sentimentalism, whereas The Giving Tree oozes with sentimentality. The boy’s selfishness and indifference do not matter in the end. When the boy returns to the tree for the last time, Silverstein simply writes that the tree is happy again. The tree never corrects the boy or reveals the slightest anger. Can this be any kind of human love?
Readers may disagree about whether the tree, the boy, or their relationship with one another is the genuine subject of the story. But what is clearly lacking in this story is the conviction that character matters and that the boy has any obligation to the tree, any office in relation to the tree—or the tree any office in relation to the boy.
Instead, desire and love justify everything. The difficult struggle to be responsible and face squarely one’s own shortcomings and the harm one has caused is never faced.
Silverstein offers his reader a mock innocence, which is the essence of sentimentalism. For that is how The Giving Tree ends, in mock innocence, as boy and tree are reunited with no apparent need to admit fault, ask forgiveness, and make amends, or even the slightest suggestion that reconciliation is a strenuous endeavor never perfected.
In Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, published in 1975, the sociologist Christopher Lasch argued that modern parents are hesitant to “arbitrarily impose their wishes on the child, thereby also making it clear that [parental] authority deserves to be regarded as valid only insofar as it conforms to (a highly subjectivist and psychological notion of) reason. . . . Rules exist only to be broken, in the words of a popular axiom.”
Parents are convinced that they cannot “impose” their morals on their children and cannot judge their behavior. Lasch concluded that this new ethos neuters love and breeds contempt for parental supervision. I would add that it makes it impossible for the child to exercise the office of being a son or daughter. All that is left to the child who is not required to live according to his office is being his own law and acting only for himself—and thereby being alone.
The Giving Tree leaves the strong impression that human beings from the start are autonomous agents who act principally on their own behalf and choose when to relate to others on the basis of appetite and impulse. Feelings and emotions are what are principally at stake. The tree is happy when the boy comes to visit and sad when he leaves. The boy has desires that when satisfied by the tree make him happy, at least for a time.
America, America insists that being a child means being the child of particular parents and a member of a particular family. We do not choose this status, this office. It is a given. We come into the world related to others. We become fully human only when we embrace duties and obligations the purpose of which is to secure the well-being of others. Our character—not our happiness—is the measure of our success in being human.
Playing Sons & Daughters
God has made children so that they naturally enjoy playing roles. One of the greatest roles they are created to enjoy is being good sons or daughters. And children naturally look forward to becoming good parents themselves. As I said, our modern notion of autonomy demeans childhood by treating its dependency as a fault that the child must overcome to be free and independent, and indeed to be fully and truly human.
An older and more profound wisdom says that dependency is not a defect to be overcome, but is rather a characteristic of the human condition. Rather than take from others only in order that we might need them no longer, we must build upon this natural dependency of children and transform it into the foundation for a moral sense of human responsibility and duty.
The message of the great religions, and most certainly of biblical faith, is that we should live for one another and not just for ourselves. We are called as free individuals to live and act in relation to others, and primary among these relations is the relation of parent and child. The etymology of our English word “responsibility” reaches back to the Greek word for “response,” which contains within it the word for “promise.” Promises include others to whom they are made and for whose good they are kept.
In biblical faith, promise and covenant and freedom and responsibility intertwine. Thus, for example, God calls out Abraham and Sarah into a covenant and promises them that from their children will come a great people, if they live faithfully under that covenant and fulfill their offices of patriarch and matriarch. Within the biblical story the characters of Abraham and Sarah cannot be distinguished from the offices they accept and perform.
One of the great tales in the Old Testament is the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel. Many years after his jealous brothers had sold him into slavery to passing merchants, he resists the temptation to bring vengeance upon them; instead, he embraces them.
But there is more. His brothers had sought to cast him out of his family and people. Nevertheless, during his many years in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right arm, Joseph does not forget his origins. He remembers his responsibility to his people under the covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac and his father Jacob. The Pharaoh seeks to honor Joseph with an Egyptian name, but Joseph keeps his Jewish name. He gains great power in Egypt yet increases in humility, perhaps because he recognizes that he will never be whole apart from being with his people.
Thus, after he tests his brothers’ integrity and determines that they are remorseful for what they did, he forgives them and arranges for his father and his brothers and their families to be brought safely to Egypt out of the deadly famine in their land. Ironically, the exiled one invites those who exiled him into his own exile because he wants to make his redemption theirs also.
Joseph employs his freedom and power with justice and compassion in two offices that also are in tension. The first is as a son of Jacob and inheritor of the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and his father; the second is as governor of Egypt in service to Pharaoh and an alien people who have accepted him and for whose welfare he, in turn, has accepted responsibility.
One cannot help but be impressed by the constancy of Joseph’s character, which holds together in spite of the conflicting forces that compete in his heart. These forces have the potential to rip him apart, yet he proves constant, a man of great and sound character, because he has accepted the burdens of his offices, both as son and as servant of the king (a kind of sonship).
No children’s story in all of Western literature more powerfully impresses upon its reader what I have said about the office of being a child than Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. When I teach Pinocchio in the college classroom, some students quickly observe that Pinocchio lacks a strong parental figure, that in practical terms he is an orphan.
But other students question this interpretation, pointing out that although Pinocchio and Geppetto are separated through most of the story, the carpenter who has made the puppet is an important parental figure. Other students note that the blue-haired fairy is both a sister and a mother to Pinocchio. She challenges the puppet to act responsibly throughout the story by assuming a variety of human and animal identities to protect, guide, and discipline the impetuous puppet.
Even those who have seen only the Disney movie version of Pinocchio or read picture-book abridgements know that Pinocchio the wooden puppet is transformed into a real, flesh-and-blood boy. Certainly that is the way the original story ends. Nevertheless, Collodi works hard to show that Pinocchio’s path to real boyhood is a struggle not just to be human, but even more, to be a good son. Indeed, Pinocchio’s success in becoming a genuine flesh-and-blood boy rests utterly on how well he succeeds in behaving as a good son toward Geppetto and the blue-haired fairy.
In other words, the virtues and habits of character that Pinocchio obtains through his many trials and tribulations gain him a “body” and a purpose in filial identity and responsibility. This office of sonship is the invisible human body that Pinocchio wears even before he is transformed into a true flesh-and-blood boy.
The Disney movie ends just after Pinocchio saves Geppetto from the belly of the great whale (a shark in the original), and leaves out the important events that follow in Collodi’s tale. After Pinocchio saves his father from the belly of the shark, he labors unselfishly to support the aged Geppetto, who is no longer able to care for the two of them. And when the puppet hears that the blue-haired fairy is ill and in the hospital, he gives over the small sum that he has saved to buy himself a new suit so that she is cared for.
Collodi is clear. Pinocchio’s love and respect for his parents secure his wish to be a real boy. In a dream, the blue-haired fairy announces to the puppet:
Is this not a far more satisfying account of happiness than the one that The Giving Tree gives? Does it not ring truer?
The lure and great power of Pinocchio abides in the truth that its central metaphor of the wooden puppet conveys. In some profound sense, all of us are born as puppets that should grow into flesh-and-blood human beings. We all start out dependent on others, especially our parents, and mature into persons able to exercise our freedom responsibly. We stumble and fall along the way, but like Pinocchio, we eventually claim our actions as our own.
We do not arrive in this world with a fully formed moral character in the same way that we arrive with certain personality traits and emotional dispositions. We build our moral character upon the stuff of heredity and environment and the particular circumstances of our life, including the offices we have been given.
Yet the self who is a moral actor, who exercises freedom and choice, is much more than the sum of these factors. The virtues cannot be taught and learned the way mathematical logarithms are taught and learned. They are not obtained by attending a course in business ethics or memorizing the Ten Commandments.
Freedom is moral freedom when it is employed with constancy and conscientiously; in other words, in a habitual but also deliberate manner in order to fulfill a certain task or form of life or office in the community, beginning with the community of the family. Virtues are habits formed by doing, and to grow in strength they require exercise in responsible relation to others and in social offices and institutions. Habits that have moral significance are habits of deliberate choice, yet choosing the right course should also become a sort of secondary habit.
We desperately need stories like Pinocchio and America, America today to help us recover these truths for our lives and for our children in a culture that not only seems to have forgotten them, but seeks continuously to replace them with new and dangerous dogmas.
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