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Left Behind: Life Lessons in Children’s Lit

Left Behind: Life Lessons in Children’s Lit

Late last year, a book entitled Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature was published profiling roughly a century of leftist, radical, and sometimes revolutionary, children’s literature. Yes, I said children’s literature. The majority of the stories, poems, and comic strips appearing in this collection originate from long forgotten, and out of print material, but influential stuff nonetheless.

A recent review of this compendium in the New York Times, by the writer Caleb Crain, touched upon a related issue that was as troubling as it was provocative. Readily admitting to the idea that radical, if not Marxist, ideals emanating from children’s lit have been influencing young readers for a near century, and he goes on to say:

“After all, most parents want their children to be far left in their early years–to share toys, to eschew the torture of siblings, to leave a clean environment behind them, to refrain from causing the extinction of the dog, to rise above coveting and hoarding, and to view the blandishments of corporate America through a lens of harsh skepticism. But fewer parents wish for their children to carry all these virtues into adulthood. It is one thing to convince your child that no individual owns the sandbox and that it is better for all children that it is so. It is another to hope that when he grows up he will donate the family home to a workers’ collective.”

For me, the troubling aspect is not that left-wing propaganda has spiked the reading pool; it is the notion that these particular ideas of fairness, humanity, and egalitarianism have an apparent shelf life that regrettably does not extend into adulthood. That at some point in a child’s life, maybe once personal and financial independence is achieved, a certain tacit parental expectation kicks in and manifests itself in the form of subtle pressure to leave behind compassionate and/or artistic leanings for something a bit more viable and pragmatic. For many parents, regardless of their political leanings, the idea of carrying your child through successive years of a meandering liberal arts education or a life-affirming bohemian odyssey is not exactly appealing compared to a more tried and true path like law, medicine or business (actually, scratch that last one).

It is no secret that many, if not most, of children’s literature reinforces ideas and concepts having to do with fairness, personal responsibility, and the common good, and that most parents utilize these messages to shepherd their children through confusion and difficult life lessons. But do these lessons, so lovingly scripted and so eagerly read, cease to serve us (children and adult children) through the hard-nosed and practical realities of life?

Please discuss.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

11 comments

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7:32AM PST on Jan 28, 2009

I really like Vanessa's comment. I don't know how I learned such "leftist" ideas as I possess, perhaps through children's literature, as my parents are very "right" so I learned more business sense, financial sense, etc. from that side. I have tried to teach my children, with moderate success, to be fair, generous (within reason) and humane. I am still grappling, at my age - I was a preschooler (although there was no preschool) at the time of the JFK assassination - with the disparity between what I know and believe to right and humane and the severe deviations from that that I see every day at work, in the news, etc. Balance seems to left the human race! But balance is what we need. I really need to get ahold of this Tales for Little Rebels book!

1:33AM PST on Jan 20, 2009

Who ever said that human values have to be political? There is a place in each of our lives where political views are left behind, and we think/decide/act from simple humanity instead. That is what children should learn.

3:35PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

I am sure I did not always do a great job of parenting but I did do some things right. I always allowed my children to have some possesions that they were NOT required to share but if they had visitors these items needed to be kept in their special place. Any toys out in the open they had to share with their friends/siblings. And every time there was gift giving on holidays and birthdays I required them to go through their stuff and give away toys/clothes in good condition to charitys and throw out unusable stuff or recycle if available.They sometimes chose to even give away new stuff if they preferred to keep all the old. This kept the amount of "stuff" from overwhelming us and taught them important lessons. We also did a purge every spring and fall to keep stuff down to a minimum. I thought this was a fair compromise with giving and owning. Just an idea for those of you with young kids.

2:05PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

Thanks to everyone for all of your very engaging and thoughtful comments. Indeed, this subject is contending with weighty issues of socialization, altruism, and moral imperatives and I love the fact that everyone is coming at this with unique stories and perspectives on the matter. Hopefully, I will be revisiting this subject in an upcoming post.

Thanks again.

Eric

P.S. Linda, I loved the story about the bike.

12:27PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

What I experienced growing up, having been taught all these "leftist" ideals as a child, was that I clung to them (and still do) because they just felt right and humane. But trying to come to terms with the "real" world was a huge problem for me. I was completely unprepared for understanding what people are capable of in their quest for advancement, and became very cynical and disillusioned as a result. I am still working through this, believe it or not. So I think it's important for parents to teach a mix of ideas, and to do it carefully, so that your child retains a sense of care for fellow beings but is able to deal with others who might not care so much.

12:05PM PST on Jan 19, 2009

We'd do better to share as we expect our kids to. There are obviously limits to what we are willing to share, and I think that's important to remember when we set expectations for our children.
I get annoyed with some of the "sharing" themed media because it's seems so baldly designed to make parenting easier, less than to help kids grow up to be good citizens.
Balance is harder to teach than absolutes, and so important.

4:08PM PST on Jan 18, 2009

I honestly don't know how I feel about this. But I know I've had examples in my life that showed me why. One important lesson came from my son when he was younger.

We lived in an area where many children had to go without. We were also trying to find ways to make do. My mother-in-law lived two states away. She sent my son a tricycle that was flashy and coveted for the time period.

My son played with a boy that had gotten no toys for Christmas. Without my knowledge, he gave the boy the tricycle. I panicked.

In my family, I would have to justify allowing such actions and my parents wouldn't have approved. So, reluctantly, I asked for the tricycle back. The people and I were distressed. My son didn't understand. Neither did I, really.

When I talked to my mother-in-law, she said, "That's so adorable. You should have let the boy keep it."

Of course, the family wouldn't accept it again after injuring their pride. My son wouldn't play with it. I ended up using it with my second child and feeling a kind of loss whenever I looked at it.

But how much simpler it would have been if I could have stayed with my own principles and thought, "My son has a tricycle," and reassured myself that it was fine for him to give someone a toy he didn't need.

4:28PM PST on Jan 17, 2009

Wow! I totally agree, it's like the "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" poem. There is *power* in these ideas. I read a ton of children's literature, for my work and for pleasure, and I think the archetypal ideas that come up as a refrain (sharing, non-judgement, fate, trusting your heart... LOVE) keep me honest. Thanks for this article. I look forward to reading more!

2:06PM PST on Jan 17, 2009

Someone once said to me "if you're not a communist by the time you're 20, you have no heart and if you're not a capitalist by the time you're 40, you have no brain." I think we're missing the mark by ascribing terms like "leftist", "radical", "revolutionary", and "bohemian" to the ideas of sharing, taking responsibility, and viewing and treating others as equals, just as we'd be missing the mark by using terms like "capitalist", "proprietary" and the like in taking up notions of self- advancement, achievement, and personal benefit. Just like the saying I cited above, I think the whole point of these considerations is not to make us decide whether we want to raise leftist, revolutionary kids or greedy little capitalists, but to get us thiking about how to strike a healthy balance between the two extremes. Kids, when they're very young, only understand things in black and white terms. So sure, it's best to start off with some "leftist" concepts if we're going to teach them to share. As they get older, there's no reason why they shouldn't be encouraged to think and act with a view to their personal well- being. Hopefully, by then, their capacity for abstract thinking would be well enough developped for them to be able to integrate the values they learned as kids and their visions of the best possible life for them, personally.

On something altogether different- I'm not convinced that turning the other cheek is very revolutionary.

11:51AM PST on Jan 17, 2009

It's hypocritical, really, to expect your child to share all their toys or to repress competitive urges. It's a rare adult who will offer an admiring neighbor his new car to drive. Yet I've heard parents (evangelical Republicans actually) expect the same release of attachment and ownership from their children. Childhood is a time to learn. It's the best time to learn the balance between caring for self and community.

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