Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who Wants a Happy Childhood?

I was flummoxed to read an advertisement in a home schooling magazine that said, “You can expect exceptional writing from happy students!”

Huh? Nobody in my experience had a happy childhood, and I know quite a few exceptional writers. Happy children would not have the memories necessary to create the conflicts that drive the plots of good fiction.  Happy children would only be able to write “nice things happen to nice people” stories that have no plots and that bore everybody.

I’ll go one further, having tried my best to encourage my children to have my idea of happy childhoods, and one of them is still in teenage rebellion mode, I don’t think it is possible to have a happy childhood. And that’s a good thing!

Happy children have no reason to develop compassion, or curiosity. They have no reason to explore the world and find out how other people think and live. If everything is completely satisfactory all the time, life would be boring.

I’m not an advocate of home schooling.  Based on what I read in this magazine, one of the goals of home schooling is parents’ ideas of creating  happy childhoods. The advertiser can’t be faulted for trying to reach these parents.  But their claim makes no sense.  Assuming it was possible to provide happy childhoods, what would  these blissful children write about?

“I had a good time today. My siblings and I played happily on our manicured lawn, listened to healthy birds warbling cheerfully to their mates, and ate delicious nutritious food. We mastered multiplication in base 2, and learned to make lanyards. My favorite colors are blue and turquoise and we had plenty of lanyard cord in both colors, so my lanyard is beautiful. I even got to use a pen with turquoise ink to write my times tables.”

This might make a nice letter home to parents from summer camp, but it does not qualify as literature. The more I think about the downsides to a happy childhood, the more I’m glad such a thing is impossible. The mix of good and bad experiences, happiness and unhappiness, is what leads to exceptional writing.  A good writing program would help children learn to create plots from their problems, develop characters who deal with danger and adversity, who fail sometimes and who have flaws.

But that’s not a sound bite. And it’s not likely to sell many products. “You can expect exceptional writing from frustrated children, who want a better world.”


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