Parenting Techniques: How to Bring our Children Up to Change the World

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Parenting Techniques: How to Bring our Children Up to Change the World

Erin Bagus

In my examination of Uncle Tom's Cabin I concluded that our hope for social change in the future lay in teaching our children to live differently, to have a different morality and social order. After reading Adventures of Huck Finn, however, it occurs to me that perhaps a better future rests not in our teaching our children anything, but in allowing them to teach us or better still, in a reciprocal interaction. To consider this thought further, it occurs to me that it may be helpful to think about the different ways of looking at childhood and child rearing. In an article entitled "The invention of childhood," Neil Postman is quoted as saying that "childhood was invented in the seventeenth century" (1). Postman argues that though there were obviously children before then, childhood did not exist as a concept. His idea is summarized, "Childhood is a social construction, a collective agreement to set aside some time between infancy and adulthood largely free of responsibilities that is enforced by behaviors, social norms, and laws" (1). He clarifies the two major philosophies, which were combined to come to this conception of childhood.

Locke, in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, said that humans start as blank slates, onto which culture must be written. The teaching of culture, which necessitates self-discipline, physical fitness, and the development of reason, helps children to become better citizens. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed the child to be valuable in and of itself, not just as a citizen. He said that children are closer to a "State of Nature" than adults and that civilization and its ugliness pollute the innate goodness of children. Postman writes that Western civilization blended these two philosophies to form its model of childhood, which is characterized as "a time when self control, deferred gratification, and logical thought are taught, but not at the expense of individuality, which must be nurtured" (2). From these three philosophies we could pull out three modes of raising children: that which believes the parent must teach the child everything about the world and how to exist in it, through strict rules, discipline, and restricting freedom; that which worships the child, giving him ultimate freedom to do as he pleases without rules or punishments; and that which tries to nurture the child's creativity and individuality within a certain framework that protects and helps him to process the world around him. In some classics of 19th Century American Literature, we find parents and children who fall into each of these categories. Perhaps, examining some of their interactions, we may see which method is most effective at producing a well-rounded child who can function in his society. This examination may also provide some idea of the possibilities and limits of letting our children devise a new social order.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck abandoned and adopted repeatedly has never had anyone to really teach him the morality and social order of his community; what he has learned, he has discovered mostly on his own. He might be considered in the second of our categories: ultimate freedom, without rules or punishments. Lacking anyone to explain to him the reasoning behind what he experiences or hears, he makes up his own story or, when he can't do that, dismisses it or pretends he never encountered it. When one of his temporary guardians, Miss Watson, tries to explain an aspect of society, namely religion, she speaks to him in a metaphorical language he cannot understand. Thus, Huck still ends up making his own story in the end, which is more literal and makes sense to him. For example, Huck narrates, "Miss Watson...told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn't no good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work" (23). When he finally asks her why it isn't working for him, she tells him he's a "fool" because he didn't understood that she meant he might receive "spiritual gifts" not material things. The thought, however, still remains unclear for Huck. He says, "I couldn't make it out no way" (23).

Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, has a family who has socialized him and answered all the why-questions that Huck is left to answer by himself. In Huck Finn, we don't really meet Tom's nuclear family, but we do spend the final section of the book with his extended family, who function in the same way as parents might, while allowing the boys' trick to work since as far away relatives they don't know what they should look like. Tom's family has taught him how he is supposed to interact with certain people and how he is supposed to feel about certain issues, therefore, he always seems to know more than Huck, that is, to be better informed. They allow him a fair amount of freedom, though, which seems to put him into the third of our categories.
The task of setting Jim free in the final section of the book brings the contrast between Huck and Tom into clarity. Tom views the project as a game, which serves only to entertain him. At one point he declares that "it was the best fun he ever had in his life, and the most intellectural; ...if he only could see his way to it we would keep it up all the rest of our lives and leave Jim to our children to get out" (256). He has lost sight of Jim's humanity in the process of amusing himself, to the point that Jim has become even worse than the property he was as a slave nothing more than a plaything, a great toy that Tom hopes to leave to his own children. Were we to put Tom in charge of designing a new social order, perhaps we would have no more slavery in the old sense, but would the new form of it be even more terrible? I think, however, that it is important to consider the fact that Tom had in fact been greatly socialized when he came up with this free-Jim game. He is not really coming up with something new because he still sees Jim as a slave, not really human in the same way that he himself is. Tom is simply being a little boy and playing make-believe with his slave to set him free, but one could easily imagine an adult who shows as much lack of regard for another human as Tom demonstrates, owning and roughly treating slaves. In this way, I don't see him as really illustrating the creative novelty with which a child's mind might formulate a new social order. He's too far gone, too educated. Perhaps he should be moved to the first category of parenting because he seems to have internalized his parents' vision of the world instead of really discovering it for himself. Huck, on the other hand, offers some real possibilities.

We, the readers, often find Huck considering the societal morality or opinion, which he has been half-taught, and in the end deciding that, for lack of a clearer solution, he is going to rely on himself and what feels right to him or comes easiest. When considering whether or not to give Jim up, he thinks to himself:

s'pose you'd a done right and give Jim up; would you felt better that what you do now? No, says I, I'd feel bad I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what's the use of learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? ...So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time. (113)

Huck cannot reason through why he should give up Jim because he doesn't understand society's rationality of slavery. In his own solitary experiences with Jim, outside society, Tom doesn't even seem to notice his race, and even appears to see Jim as a father figure or caretaker.

Later, during another internal struggle Huck is feeling between what he knows he's supposed to do with Jim, that is turn him in, and what he feels is right. He says, "I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind...he would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me" (223). Huck's interaction with Jim and his ability to see him as a real person as well as his desire to save Jim not just for amusement's sake, but for the fact that he is human and deserves freedom, make me believe that a child like Huck could teach us adults a new way of seeing the world. He is courageous enough to let go of the morality - "moral or no moral; and as for me, I don't care shucks for the morality of it" (254) and just do what he thinks right, no matter the consequences. He even accepts the possibility that he might be wrong, declaring, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (223).

One issue, however, that we must deal with is the fact that Huck goes along with Tom throughout the whole ordeal of "creating difficulties" to make Jim's escape more like those Tom's read about in books. If Huck is the aspect of childhood, which might provide us with something new, he is also that part of us that doesn't dare act out, that goes along with the group even when we think it wrong or unjust. He tells Tom, "All right I don't care where he comes out, so he comes out; and Jim don't either, I reckon" (251). Huck gives in to the ridiculous antics that Tom wants Jim to perform instead of standing up for and protecting him. I have been trying to figure out why he does that because he seems like such a creative, resourceful child; I would be more likely to guess that he might stand up for himself and what he thinks.

It occurs to me though, that Tom and Huck are each trying to place themselves in the other's situation. That is, that Tom is trying to be wild and free without the restraints of society or family, like Huck while Huck wants to be more logical and restrained to fit into the society and family world of which he is not naturally a part. At the end of the book, Huck says, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (296). I would argue that it is not that Huck doesn't want to be "civilized" and become part of a family group, but rather that he doesn't know how and, unable to figure it out, he chooses to remain in the world he knows the wilds, nature. Huck seems to envy his friend because he has been taught how to play his part in the group, because he knows the rules and how he is supposed to act. Though they have shared many experiences, each boy has had an opposite sort of childhood because of the way his parents treat him. Neither child rearing technique seems to have been totally successful in this story because Tom, who was highly socialized, orchestrated a game with a man's life, and Huck, who lacked socialization, could see a new order but couldn't stand up for it when it counted because he didn't feel confident enough in his ability to process; he'd never had a strong parent-figure to teach him how to sort through his ideas and understand the world he encounters.

Let us look at another 19th Century work to see another parent-child situation. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, there are repeated examples of children and how they are taught the social scheme by their parents. Young angelic Eva has taken to heart her father's principles, even if he doesn't have the moral strength, or is too lazy, to carry them through. She, I believe, falls into the third kind of child rearing, but hers is a strange case because she often seems to be more the teacher than her parents are. She is described as: "the perfection of childish beauty, ... an undulating and aerial grace, ... mythic and allegorical being ...deep spiritual gravity ...[like] something almost of the angels stepped out of the New Testament" (126-7). The young girl is not a typical child and seems to have a deeper spiritual sense of the world than even most adults. She tries to teach those around her a new way of living, based on love of everyone, no matter their race or situation. Her father supports her, even to the point of worshiping her. This, however, might fit with her religiousness. Their relationship does not actually seem to fit into any of our categories though precisely because Eva appears to be more like an angel than a child, endowed with a certain sense of the world typically beyond a child. I think it is important to consider the fact that Eva is supposed to represent a Christ-figure in the novel. Because of this, she might not function well as an example of a real child, to discover which child rearing technique is most effective. Let us move on then to another, more real child figure in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Young Master George has two parents who participate actively in teaching him about the world, while at the same time, allowing him to interact with and discover it on his own. Not only does he have his parents to do this, but he has also known Tom since birth, and loves him as a sort of father figure and friend. The young master has taken to heart his parents', specifically his mother's, convictions about slavery, and though they were not able to make decisive action in their own time, he will realize the changes that they imagined. If we do indeed consider Tom a parent-figure for George, it seems particularly important that it is "kneeling on the grave of his poor friend" that the young master declares before God that "from this hour, [he] will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from [his] land" (365).

Standing on the shoulders of his forefathers and understanding the fundamental causes of the unjust system they handed down to him, George declares that he will "never own another slave, while it was possible to free him; that nobody, through [him], should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation" (380). Not only does the young master set his slaves free, but more importantly, he does it for the right reasons. He sees their humanity, and that they are no different from he. George's interactions with his two sets of "parents" his own natural mother and father and Tom and his wife - have taught him about the world as it is, while at the same time, nurturing in him creative thought, individuality, and the belief that he can change the system. For this reason, I think Master George represents the third kind of child rearing, which nurtures the child's creativity and individuality within a certain framework that protects and helps him to process the world around him. The fact that he is the only figure in Uncle Tom's Cabin to make any real change seems to show the great possibility of the third method of bringing up children.

How do these literary examples inform our discussion of the three child rearing techniques? Where does they leave us in terms of whether or not our children can teach us how to live differently? It seems to me that all of the children Huck, Tom, Eva, and George show us children's amazing ability to think creatively. Based solely on their own experiences of it, they see the world very differently than adults do. Sometimes, however, without instruction they can be too self-absorbed and disregard the well being of others like Tom does when designing his game to "free Jim." Everyone for himself certainly will not work as a societal order because it would result in total chaos. Also, with Huck, we see that children seem to crave some direction about how they are supposed to fit into the world.

If we allow more of a reciprocal relationship between the children's creative imagination and the adult's mature, experienced guidance, we arrive at a middle path. In the examples of Eva and Master George, we find children who've been nurtured in this fashion, which falls somewhere in between too much and too little freedom. They are able to first understand why the world is the way it is, and then to challenge that society in very real ways. George, in particular, when he comes of age, makes actual decisions that change the structure of slavery giving his slaves the freedom, which should naturally be theirs as human beings. At the end of the discussion, I think it is fair to say that our best prospect for the future lies in the third child rearing technique, which explains to children how the world is, but supports them in their individuality. This method provides children with the creative space to change the world.


Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Elizabeth Ammons, Ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1994.

"The Invention of Childhood." 24 February 2005. Online 4 May 2006.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Thomas Cooley. New York: Norton, 1999.

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