Saturday, July 23, 2011

Looking into Childhood

In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller says that rather than simply theorize about what the life of the child is like, people should look at accounts of childhood experience.  She quotes Herman Hesse, for example, telling about his childhood, as well as Alphonse Daudet and Ingmar Bergman.  

It's interesting that this is a theme of Charlotte Mason's, as well.  Charlotte Mason's emphasis is different.  While Miller's emphasis is on healing the damage done in the childhood years, especially by physical and emotional violence, Mason is approaching childhood from the perspective of an educator.  She looks for testimonies of childhood (for example, Tolstoy's) as a way to understand the inner life of the child so that the parent and educator will not be so likely to make avoidable blunders.  

There is possibly no known field of research in which so little available work has been done as in that covered by the word 'children.' The 'fair lande' lies under our very eyes, but whoso would map it out must write 'Unexplored' across vast tracts. Thoughtful persons begin to suspect that the mistakes we make through this ignorance are grievous and injurious. ... When genius is able to lift the veil and show us a child, it does a service which, in our present state of thought, we are hardly able to appraise; and when genius or simplicity, or both, shall have given us enough such studies to generalise upon, we shall doubtless reconsider the whole subject, and shall be dismayed at the slights we have been putting upon children in the name of education.
Another book that I have been reading that speaks of the importance of the childhood testimony is The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard by Thomas Edward Shields.  I read about this book in Poetic Knowledge, and found it was available in public domain online, and that it is much more readable than you might expect.  It is written in a dialogue form, sort of like Charlotte Mason's book Character Formation, but it seems to me slightly less dated than Character Formation with its emphasis on new psychological science and so on; the book by Shields reads more like a real conversation between interesting people, at least to me.   Here's the bit about the importance of remembering childhood rather than simply reading "about" it: 

"I, too, have been looking forward to this evening," said Miss Ruth. "The child has come to be the center of all educational endeavor in our day, hence it is a matter of the greatest importance to all of us who have to deal with children to be able to understand how the child looks out upon the world, to recognize the elements in his developing mind and character that are valuable and that should be cultivated, and also to be able to recognize those other elements which we should as constantly seek to eliminate."
"I quite agree with you," said the Doctor, "and while it has become the fashion for teachers to read many volumes on child study, I believe that every teacher could use some of this time to greater advantage in making excursions into his own childhood. If he learns to read and understand all that he there finds he will be provided with a private key that will give him ready admission to the minds and hearts of the children who are committed to his care.

I am not far into this book yet, but already am finding it interesting.  The "Doctor" is Dr Shields, the dullard who became a professor.  There is also a Judge, who was notable because he became speechless for 10 years during his childhood.   He was a bright child who became so stressed at school that he stopped being able to talk, even to his own family; and even into adulthood he had a stutter which he worked hard to control.

The world of childhood is one that we often put firmly behind us; I think it is partly because it is so particular, immanent and emotionally powerful compared to our adult habits of generalization, distancing and rationality.  But these authors seem to argue, in very different ways and from different perspectives, the same thing that James Taylor argues in Poetic Knowledge:  that adult wisdom and knowledge builds on those early, particular, emotionally charged experiences, and that we do best to acknowledge that.   Parenting from the Inside Out, another book I have been rereading recently, says that one way to integrate emotion and reason is to construct a coherent  autobiographical narrative.  That doesn't mean, necessarily, writing it out, but he notes that people who have repressed pain from their childhood often have an incoherent or "flat" narrative.  That is, a person with unresolved issues will often ramble about their childhood, skipping from one thing to another without much perspective, or they will describe objectively painful or horrifying things with an odd cheerfulness or lack of emotions or over-analysis.  


  1. Willa... Wow. I wish I could meet with you for a tea or coffee to talk...
    I read that book not long ago, and I liked it much. The Drama of a Gifted Child. I agree with her. It made me look at my childhood and decide that it wasn't a happy one, but it had happy moments, though. She says we can't change that, but we need to start there, looking at our childhood with honesty. I like what you say at the end about constructing a narrative... I even have started to write about my childhood, I'd like to continue that for sure...
    Back to the book, I never knew to relate it to Mason.

    As for The Making and Unmaking... your link is not working, but I'll find it. I want to read it too. Currently I have the Republic half way, Outside Lies Magic down by a third, and I'm reading For the Children's Sake too.

    I recently found music books by Tapper, and the prologue of Music Talks with Children also tells us that it's US, GROWN UPS who think music is difficult for children because we are not as fresh as them, we have biases that hinder our relationship with music. It may be what you say here I think it is partly because it is so particular, immanent and emotionally powerful compared to our adult habits of generalization, distancing and rationality.

    Have you read CM's biography by Stephanie? It's free, btw, and when I read it the fact of CM being told she was pretty as a child, and her father saying that as she grew up she was starting to loose that beauty and grow as a rather ugly person... I don't know, it made me sad. She has a narrative of her childhood. Her powerful IDEA about children loving language even when we consider it difficult and try to water it down comes from her memory of remembering a long difficult name of an author her mother was reading.

    I think she has happy memories too. Now that you mention it, it may be the case CM, and all of us truly do things inspired by our knowledge of our childhood, more or less specific.

    I find that much of what I'm trying to do with the girls is related to my childhood. For example, I loved to hear and illustrate Bible stories, and my daughters too... I have always had that idea that children in touch with the Bible respond very well to it and thirst to know more about those men and women that preceded us.

    As a child I suffered much by my parents financial stress and problems... I married a very steady and austere man, who can budget extremely well.

    My mother 'let go of herself'... without giving specifics now, I also promised myself inwardly that I will try not to 'embarrass' my daughters with my appearance, and I've kept my weight very balanced, and I try to now that I know about it, look modest and 'nice' to my best abilities without falling into vanity or materialism.

  2. I LOVED LOVED going outdoors, my mom knitting, birthday parties prepared by the moms, and clean homes and family life (since we did not have that much at home), I would have loved being read to, or to have my moms pictures and writings for when I was older to look back and know about my world, I longed for the homes of friends full with books... that is what I'm trying to do with my daughters.

    I apologize, this comment seems too self centered. It touched totally my thoughts and feelings of lately. Actually, I was thinking about posting something called FIRST GENERATION, or when you have to reinvent home life or parenting, in one word, when you don't have much inheritance (spiritual and emotional) from your parents.

    Ah, and I think that is a well stated fact. I have a friend who was severely abused when young, and for many years I heard her talk about her life with detachment, even very sardonically and sarcastically. She shields herself by hurting herself in her speech before anyone else does it. She is a person very difficult to converse with or have as a friend. No trust, and as Miller said, she suffers from that mechanism of defense of being busy, and she is an overachiever than has very low self esteem behind her ironic personality.

    Of course, as with sin, it's sooooooooooo easy to see this in others, ha! I also had a bit of that too myself.

    Thanks for helping so much to clarify thoughts, to show us a way to find how to be better parents and educators, and for the book recommendations! I'm glad you are back... but no pressure please, do what you have to with this blogging thing!


  3. This is so interesting. My husband has spent part of last year realising that he lacks a lot of childhood memories- things his family refer to he doesn't remember at all. His parents divorced when he was quite young. It makes both the process of understanding happy marriage and of trying to give our children a happy childhood more difficult, not having the basic framework.

    Willa, I wanted to thank you again for the book. We're both terrified and thrilled by the idea of unschooling, or semi-unschooling, with classical elements. This is probably imposing, but I had a stunning simple realisation- we have free long distance all over North America through magicjack, and if it would be possible to arrange would love to talk to you about some of the questions raised by the book.

  4. Argh argh argh. That was me, Kyra, and not Geoffrey.

  5. Willa... I don't want to load your plate with yet one more read, but I thought you may like what I shared after reading Miller's book,

  6. Hi Kyra and Silvia,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comments! I am sorry I didn't reply sooner -- I have been on the road. I'm writing from Oregon actually!

    Silvia, I didn't think your comments were self-centered. It was very interesting reading about your background and how you are trying to do things differently. I have been thinking about that a lot recently. A lot of my friends came from troubled backgrounds, and I always wondered about it since my family was stable, but now I'm realizing there were a lot of stresses in my parents' lives in my early childhood, and that this probably affected me more than I realized.

    Kyra, I would love to talk to you... I am in Oregon right now and then in Alaska (my mom just had surgery) and then will be in Oregon again. But I suppose that doesn't matter actually if your phone service calls to cell phones. I will try to email you through FB or regular email.

    I wasn't trying to persuade you to unschool if you don't feel called ;-) -- I thought you might like the book even if your kids went to school, because you and Geoffrey seem like archetypical autodidacts who probably basically unschooled yourselves even while going to school.

  7. Willa... I'm buzzing with ideas, books, experiences... I just wanted to let you know that I finished Outside Lies Magic, it was not exactly what I expected but a good book indeed.
    I'm half way through The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard... what a fantastic book. The best I've read after Poetic Knowledge in this line.
    Thanks for writing about it. I got it on PDF for the Kindle which simplifies reading it, it's 300 pages, but it's on pdf, many are blank, some come with large print, some smaller, on average, very readable.
    I saw and downloaded a program called Caliber, supposedly I converted it to mobi for kindle, but I haven't placed it on the kindle yet to check if it reads any better than on pdf.
    Looking forward to some writings by you on these books or life, or others... and still respecting your silence. I wonder if I should do the same, because I have a nest of bees in my brain, which is nice, but so many things I want to say and write about at once are blocking me!

  8. This is a terrific post ... I especially love this: "The world of childhood is one that we often put firmly behind us; I think it is partly because it is so particular, immanent and emotionally powerful compared to our adult habits of generalization, distancing and rationality ... (but adulthood) builds on those early, particular, emotionally charged experiences, and that we do best to acknowledge that."

    BTW, I am culling your high school blog. Serendipitously, I am writing a simple philosophy curriculum -- of sorts -- for my 17-year-old film buff. I needed stronger arguments for the existence of God, and you have some very promising links. I am not very religious myself, and this part of my curriculum was weak.

    BTW, I was thinking of you as I was tinkering with my information on philosophy of religion. We haven't talked in ages, but I remember you as intellectual, philosophical and devout, as well as a terrific writer, teacher and mom.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!