First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week. It’s a busy time of the year. But I’m back!
Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children. Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood. Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games. Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.
That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.
- I went to see It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
- I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect. Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
- But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks. I recently reread Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class. Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.” This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength. In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run. He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow. Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.” Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger. I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.
And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame. The good feelings are more intense too, sure. But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood. Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.