Sunday, March 26, 2006

A reflection upon childhood stories...

My own children have been reading these stories from my childhood and having their own, disconcerting reactions to them.

As I was putting the two of them to bed a couple of nights ago, nine-year-old Sa-Rah told me, "Daddy, you are very strict with us and tell us not to do dangerous things, but some of those things that you did as a child were more dangerous than anything we've ever done."

"Yes?" I replied, waiting for the rest.

"I wonder," she continued, "where I could find a bullet."

"What?!" I cried, aghast ... until I realized that she was joking.

But I do wonder if these childhood stories, some of them about my bad behavior, might lead my own children to question my right to discipline them for their bad behavior.

Even if a story is told to serve as a bad example, the story itself can prove so interesting that its moral can be missed. Not so long ago, I told my six-year-old En-Uk a story of how I stole two pieces of penny gum, hoping to impress upon him the importance of honesty by showing him the consequences of dishonesty.

In the story that I told, I was only about six myself and staying at my uncle's farm with my brother Tim, who would have been about four at the time. My aunt and uncle had taken us along when they went shopping for groceries, and I noticed some penny gum in a jar on the counter. When nobody was looking, I took two pieces -- one for me, the other for Tim.

In the pickup truck on the way back, I handed Tim one of them and slipped the other one into my mouth. I knew enough to chew mine carefully, but Tim -- not knowing that the gum was stolen and too young to hide things anyway -- chewed his openly.

My Aunt Pauline noticed. "Tim," she asked, "what are you chewing on?"

"Gum," he answered.

"Where did you get gum?" she asked.

"Jeff gave it to me," he replied.

I had stopped chewing mine and was listening in alarm to this interchange as I stared out the window, pretending to be fascinated by the passing scenes of a countryside with which I was totally familiar.

"Jeff," my aunt began, "where did you get the gum?"

At first, I tried to lie, but I've never been good at that, so the whole story quickly came out. When my 12-year-old cousin soon heard about what I had done, she was worried about the state of my soul and told me that I might go to hell for stealing.

"For a piece of gum?" I thought, but said nothing, feeling both annoyed and guilty.

I could have argued theology, I suppose, for I was already protestantized enough from the naturally heathen ethic of childhood to 'know' that reward and punishment in the afterlife depends not upon a balance of good and bad acts but upon one's state of grace ... but I wasn't sure that I stood in that state anyway, so it would have been a moot point.

At any rate, I told the bare bones of this story to En-Uk, the moral being that one will generally get caught in dishonesty, hoping to impress upon him the importance of never stealing and of always telling me the truth, but he was less impressed with either of these ethical points than he was with the details of the story itself. He seemed fascinated that I had been a little boy, that I had stolen gum, that I had tried to lie about it, and that I had gotten in trouble. He kept asking the same questions over and over.

"Daddy," he'd begin, "when you were a little boy, you stole two pieces of gum?"

"Yes, En-Uk," I'd agree.

"And you gave one to your brother?" he'd continue.

"Yes," I'd affirm.

"And your aunt..." he'd start to add.

"En-Uk," I'd cut in, "you already know this story. I've told you a dozen times! Now stop asking!"

"... saw your brother chewing his piece?" he'd go on, unfazed.

And so, it went, for about a week, then stopped. I thought that he had forgotten about it, but after reading the bullet story, En-Uk informed me, "You should write about the time you stole that gum."

"You think so?" I asked.

"Yes," he thought so.

"But that one's kind of boring," I said.

He disagreed. The story was obviously fascinating for him ... as a story. I'm still not sure that he got the moral, though.

Maybe the story doesn't carry the moral very well. A clever kid could retort, "Next time, don't give a piece to your little brother, and you won't get caught!"

As literary critics often say, a good story is ambiguous enough to allow for more than one interpretation, and there's enough truth to that 'clever' kid's reading for me to confess that my own childhood reaction was precisely that.

Yet ... I never again tried to steal any gum, and I think that this was because I felt bad about having disappointed my aunt.

Perhaps the moral of a story is only as good as the teller of the tale, but if that's the case, I'd better stop telling my kids these childhood stories about my mischief, or I'll have no credibility left.

The moral of this 'story'? Don't tell stories...


At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think kids are more likely to learn from experience than the stories of older people who were never kids themselves (note En-Uk's fascination that you were a kid). Nearly every kid will at some point steal and lie and do stupid things. Parents, who did the same when they were kids, will correct their kids and then, hopefully kids learn their lessons through experience. Better to steal a piece of gum as a six year-old and learn a hard lesson at that point than to learn it when trying to steal a car at sixteen.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I think that parents can have a profound influence for good (or bad) on their children, though this influence is often powerfully vitiated by other factors -- peer groups, school, music, the general culture.

I just have to keep trying (and keep serving as a useful 'bad' example).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, of course, that parents have a huge influence on their kids. Much of that influence comes from how they react (or don't) to their kids' inevitable misdeeds.

I'm reminded of all the times I've sat through presentations by people who as a condition of parole must talk to kids about their crimes. Many kids get hung up on the details of those crimes rather than the consequences. I think it's consequences that unfortunately have to be learned first hand.

It's like the playground. You don't really get that falling off the monkey bars can hurt until you do it a time or two or actually see another kid break his arm.

Still, I'm enjoying your stories to no end. Unless of course they do.

At 1:21 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

You know, it's funny... I never stole anything out of my mom's purse, but I WOULD steal candy out of the food cabinet. Mmmm. I am still relatively unrepentant about it, too.

At 4:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I seem to write in cycles, so I'll probably find my cyclical way back to stories like these from my childhood ... sometime.

Saur, taking money from the wallets of one's parent seems worse to me that taking candy from the kitchen cabinet.

Maybe I think so because the money belongs specifically to the parent, whereas the candy belongs to the entire household.

So ... you were only stealing from yourself.

Jeffery Hodges

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