Tonight I started reading “Winnie-the-Pooh” aloud to Evie. The book was a gift from Evie’s Godmother, Danica. Perhaps it’s a bit of an ambitious project? I mean, she just turned one year old. How much of the book is she going to remember?
But then again, it isn’t really about her remembering. The gift of the book and a few days of downtime gives me an opportunity to take advantage of one of the most important perks of having kids. That is, the opportunity to revisit your own childhood.
I know I’m not alone in this. Most of the young parents I have known have said at one time or another, “Oh, can’t wait until they are old enough to (insert fondly remembered formative experience) together.” I think it is a natural part of being a parent, this desire to share the things that were most important to us as kids. I suppose it is an extension of the desire to give good things to our kids, the best things in fact. We each seize on the best things that we have to offer and look forward to the day when we can pass them on to our kids. For some that is the classic video games that they played (Mario Bros or what have you). For others it is their favorite movies (Star Wars, the Princess Bride, classic Disney films). For Kathleen that is skiing, the Swiss Park and road trips.
For me it is books.
Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chronicles of Narnia, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, Doctor Seuss, The Lord of the Rings, Wind in the Willows, 20,000 Leagues Below the Sea, and too many, far too many to list here.
I wonder whether there is something more there than mere nostalgia. We have all found, I am sure, that revisiting old pleasures to recreate the original feel doesn’t usually work. When I read Winnie-the-Pooh now it is not with the simple delight of an eight-year-old boy delighting in the adventures of a silly old bear stuffed with fluff. I am bigger than I was, my mind is broader, sharper and more exact. My context is larger. The story connects in a hundred ways that it could not have connected as a child (I relate more to the narrator than to the characters, for one thing). Nostalgia doesn’t work. Reading to kids is a new thing, not the old pleasure. But the old pleasure is still contained in the new, especially when I can give a child the same joy of discovery that I had in getting lost in a great yarn.
But there is still another level in which I think that the perk of reliving our childhood to a certain extent is important. I am well past the intellectual level of Winnie-the-Pooh, by now. That is, I can understand much more difficult, deep and nuanced literature. I can read things for pleasure that would have been an impossible chore when I first read Winnie-the-Pooh. This growth is natural and necessary, and in fact if I was still reading exclusively or primarily children’s books, there would definitely be a problem.
However, greater learning and intellectual ability come with their own set of pitfalls, the worst of which is snobbishness. The second most dangerous, for anyone charged with teaching, is that of despising the lower. I have spent 30 years reaching my current level and I will spend the next 30 years growing still more. There is a temptation when I teach to try to get the students to skip those 30 years and all the childish things that I occupied so much of my life with. I have slowly and laboriously worked out a certain sense of good and bad, valuable and meaningless. Along the way I have let go of a lot of stuff that I once thought of as valuable, because I learned that it really wasn’t that important.
I have far less use for movies than I used to. Books are better. It is tempting to want other people just to learn from my mistakes, as it were, and just go straight for the more valuable and skip all the rest of it.
It doesn’t work. In much the same way that trying to coach someone to lift too hard and heavy too quickly is the surest way to cause injuries and burnout and stunt their long term strength gains, so trying to force a child to skip the childish and go straight for the more mature is likely to stunt them at an artificial level for a very long time.
Note, this is not the same thing as saying that any thing kids like is valuable just because they like it, or that, for instance, cartoons and video games are as good for growing kids as reading Dr. Seuss and C. S. Lewis and running around outside. There are things that are helpful and valuable and easy, and things that are stupid and meaningless and easy, and I suspect discerning the difference is going to be one of the major challenges of parenting.
All that by way of saying that rereading children’s books as an adult, and at least to some extent actively sharing them with my kids is part of my spiritual growth strategy for the next twenty-odd years or so. It is one way that I plan on becoming like a little child.
And speaking of childhood classics…