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Family

A Child’s Truth

September 21, 2016 by

I don’t stop to read articles about child-rearing or parent-guides anymore. But a friend sent me this New Yorker article that sent my I’m-done-with-raising-my-children mind back twenty years to when our children were small, and we were in that jungle called parenting. Why this piece, and not others?

This one is about books. B-O-O-K-S. Maybe my favorite thing in the world. In it, Belle Boggs discusses which books, both children’s literature and of the parenting genre, were formative for her before her daughter’s birth and as she raised her child. She shares with us that the single volume that most shaped her ideas about how to raise her daughter was The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian Jew who wrote of relationships and politics during and after the Fascist years. In a series of essays translated in 1985 from Le Piccole Virtu (1962) Ginzburg explores what it is that we need to teach our children to enable them to become the adults they are meant to be. Don’t teach your children the little virtues, Ginsberg says, teach them the big ones. So what are virtues? The Greek classicists isolated four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The other three virtues, identified by Saint Paul, are faith, hope, and love.

I did not read Ginzburg twenty-five years ago, nor have I read her since, but I have read a lot else – and I remember the books that shaped the years our children were young and molded my mothering, however subconsciously. But they weren’t parenting books; I didn’t need them, because I had a real-life example.

My mother-in-law’s baby-bible had been Dr. Spock, but we had her. Having raised seven children herself, she was my guide-book, and her own wisdom-by-trial had moved her beyond Spock. So what she gave to me came from a loving, humorous, and intelligent soul. Here’s just one example. Most of the years that our children were small she lived several hours away and would come on visits, several days or a week at a time. One morning, as we sent the children off to school, she overheard my farewell “Be good!” Later she said to me: “Carmen, telling a child to ‘be good’ is not helpful instruction. Try to imagine what it puts on a child. Try just this: be kind. It covers everything.” She was right. Kindness, which includes love and justice, is a virtue. Goodness per se is not found in the seven virtues.

smiling children with face painting designs on their cheeks

We did not instruct our children in the classicist style, but we did read. We read to them as long as they were in the house. There is gold in the children’s classics, which, if recognized, can provide all the wisdom children need. One of my favorites as a child was A Hole Is To Dig, by Ruth Krauss, and I made sure we had a copy in the house for our first child.

In this simple book of definitions, some of them the funniest you will ever read, Krauss teaches her small readers the basic requirements: Mash potatoes are to give everybody enough – sharing and generosity. The world is so you have something to stand on – a sense of belonging and security, and better take care of it. Dishes are to do. Bingo. A hand is to hold up when you are waiting your turn – patience. There’s much more. And these dictums or philosophies are so random and simple; they are a child’s truth. It’s the kind of book a child will want to listen to, then read, and it will be memorized before they know it, and they will be set for life. I don’t know that this was Kraus’s original intent, but she’s given us signposts.

As our children got older we continued reading. I think we all cried when the dog died in Where the Red Fern Grows, while How Green was My Valley taught them that life can be messy, sad, and complicated, but still beautiful. Their mother cried, reading the last pages out loud. And we took a whole year reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings – courage, mercy, hope. And October Sky told them calculus is fun! (Not exactly a virtue, but hey, it might stand you in good stead one day.) I could go on and on; we always had a family book going.

But more than teaching virtues, reading opens whole new worlds to our children. One of Boggs’s key sentences read, “It’s important business, raising a human being from infancy to adulthood, and one full of anxiety, for most of us, especially when we consider that essential question: Which road will they choose?

I would ask, how can they choose the road to travel if they haven’t learned the potential destinations? As my oldest son said, “It’s not so much that you taught us lessons by what you read to us, but that you took the effort to throw a lot of different themes and ideas our way to expose us to more of life.”

I would be less than truthful if I allowed readers to think we raised our family and taught our children without an integral belief in Christ. A beautifully illustrated children’s Bible was never out of reach, and particularly during the ecclesiastical seasons they listened to the scriptural accounts of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. The colorful Old Testament stories held their attention as well: Moses, Abraham, the Maccabees.

So it goes without saying that as each one stood on the cusp of their own seeking and path-finding, we did a lot of praying. And if we accept the seven virtues as sign posts along the way, we can also believe in angels, who are the official guides. Since I’ve quoted my father often in my posts, I’ll wrap this up with one simple sentence of his, to one of my children: May all your angels keep their eyes wide open and stay within safe distances.

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About the author

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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