“You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.”
–Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten”
Children have been around pretty much forever. What I find interesting is that the Western concept of childhood as a unique stage of human development only dates back to the 1600s. The more modern notion of childhood as a time of innocence distinctly separate from adulthood is as recent as the Victorian era. (It should be noted here that the literature I will be looking at was intended for a predominantly white, Christian, middle- and upper-class audience, who had the benefit of education, leisure time and expendable income. While progress was made regarding working conditions and child labor laws, Victorian ideals of the sanctity of childhood did not necessarily extend from the nursery into the factory or the slum). It is during the 19th century that fiction and poetry expressly for children came about, resulting in enduring classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Tom Sawyer, as well as the verses of Robert Lewis Stevenson and Edward Lear. Magazines for children also began to appear during this time. Above all, there is a flood of didactic literature in textbooks, nursery books, and magazines.
Didactic literature is written with moral education as its ultimate goal. As such, it can show us the virtues and vices that a society thought it important to address. Children’s literature makes this easier because the writers would want their points to come across as clearly and simply as possible for the young readers. (I’ll be using Struwwelpeter again since it’s available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg, but there are plenty of other examples to be found in used bookstores or online if you want to find your own. Often, as in the case of Harriet with her matches, Fidgety Philip, or Little Suck-a-Thumb, the particular crimes of the children are secondary to the common offense of disobedience. Harriet disobeys her mother and burns to death. Philip ignores his parents’ commands to be still at the table and pulls the dinner down on himself, depriving the whole family of their meal. Suck-a-Thumb obeys his mother right up until the point where she leaves the room, resulting in a tailor cutting off the naughty boy’s thumb with scissors. I’ve looked at disobedience before, but it really seems to hit its stride by the mid-1800s. I also enjoy that many of the stories about naughty boys and girls are in verse, while the stories about good children are in prose. The good children are not given disproportionate praise or success (goodness being its own reward), while the naughty children receive punishments that seem far more severe than their offenses merit. The good children are also infinitely more boring to read about. Let’s look a little closer at the disobedient children.
Philip isn’t a bad child that we know of, but we do know he can’t sit still. His behavior at the dinner table becomes rambunctious enough that he treats his chair like a rocking horse. It hardly comes as a surprise that it eventually rocks over backwards. It’s also natural that he grabs at the tablecloth in a last-ditch effort to right himself. Chair, child, tablecloth, and dinner all end up in a heap on the floor. Even today, this would frustrate and anger a parent, but in Philip’s world, there’s no pizza delivery, no microwave dinners. A hot dinner took hours to prepare over an iron stove or an open hearth. Let’s be honest, he doesn’t even get properly punished, when you look at the day’s labor he wasted in an instant.
Harriet is a bit more serious. We still teach children not to play with matches for this very reason (well, because they could get hurt, not because a divine fire will burn them to ash without marring anything in the house. Really, this reads more like a spontaneous combustion than an accidental fire). It’s worth mentioning that after childbirth, fire was the leading cause of death for 19th century women, so the warnings Harriet received were hardly meaningless. While sad, her death was probably a very realistic result of her disobedience within the context of history.
Worst of all, little Suck-a-Thumb… sucks his thumb. Which is very bad and wrong. Because grown-ups say so. I’ll be honest, I know it can screw up your front teeth and all, but there are a lot of weird thumb-sucking stories out there, and they all seem to result in the child losing his or her thumb. We are threatening children with maiming for a pretty minor offense. I’m not a parent and all, but it just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Maybe as adults, we should let this one go, and spend our time teaching children not to be little jerks who spill all the food off the table and get away with it.
These poems seem funny and odd looking back through the lens of 170 years or so, but they (mostly) had real lessons to teach children. The tales of good and obedient children, despite being more dull and less gory, teach kindness to animals, compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, studiousness, industriousness, and generosity, which are all pretty important things for a child to get an early grasp on. All in all, didactic literature is an effective tool to help children learn how to learn what traits their society values and how best to succeed in that environment, and it’s still used today!
Seriously, though, can we all just agree to leave the thumb-suckers alone?