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Children Look for Constraints
Turning Red and choosing a rule of life to cleave to
This week, I’m talking about children’s stories and the battle between positive and negative freedom. Later this week, I’ll have a roundup of your comments about chronic illness, competency, and whom we exclude from our definition of what it means to be human.
I have not seen the new Pixar film Turning Red (which is about a girl who has inherited the power to turn into a large red panda from her mother), but I’ve appreciated some of the peripheral discussion.
One of my favorite comments came from Noah Millman, who enjoyed it, but had a sharp observation:
It’s not clear precisely what the panda is supposed to represent—sexuality? creativity? anger?—and that’s a good thing; it’s a metaphor, not an allegory. But the one thing that is clear about it is that it is powerful, and therefore difficult to control. And yet, Mei gets control of it almost immediately. […] And that just bugged the crap out of me. That’s not what my experience of sexuality, creativity or anger is like, nor is it how I experience anyone else in whom those currents course powerfully.
A message that you don’t have to cut off, cut out or otherwise deny a part of yourself to become mature, that you don’t need a cure for developing secondary sex characteristics or for the emotional ructions of puberty—that’s a message that might have quite a bit of resonance in our era. But I think minimizing the challenges of deciding to live fully seriously undermines the message’s persuasiveness. And I suspect kids can tell when they’re being sold a fantasy.
It’s possible for your parents to have the wrong guardrails for a powerful part of yourself, and for the solution to be not the absence of constraint, but a better way to keep that part of yourself alive but not untrammelled.
In some ways, Millman’s comment pairs well with the biography of Maria Montessori that I recently read. When Montessori began observing small children, she was surprised by the way they loved routines and work. While donors to her classroom wanted to bring toys to the children, the children wanted to get to push the broom or wash the windows. They wanted to do hard things, to explore the edge of their mastery.
I’ve been baking with my toddler (prodded a bit by this good column from Liz Bruenig), and it’s quite stressful for me! At any moment, there can be a big mess, and it removes a lot of what is relaxing about baking by myself. But I’ve been impressed with how determined my two-year-old is to learn to bake rather than to just express herself messily with the flour.
When I tell her we need to mix gently, and that we want the dry ingredients to stay in the bowl, she listens. (Though her application combines gentle stirring with yelling “Stay in bowl!” to the flours and sugars).
Discipline isn’t automatically repulsive to children—it can be an exciting way to move through the world, to learn what your strength is for. The katas of everyday life don’t get cheesy 80s training montages, but many children do find them attractive.
Which leaves me curious about what stories (on film or otherwise) for children are about choosing the right limits (and possibly learning your parents have chosen the wrong ones).
The first thing that comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time, where Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg, “Stay angry, little Meg. You will need all your anger now.” Meg isn’t called to let her anger take hold of her completely, but she finds the right way to use it, which is ultimately still subordinate to love.