On Alcott’s Little Men

First, I am belatedly sharing my Public Discourse article entitled “Educating the Educated: The Why and How of Liberal Education for Adults,” which was published a few weeks ago. It reflects upon my experience at St. John’s in order to argue for more programs like it in graduate-level liberal education.

In keeping with the theme of education, which has also been the topic of several recent posts, I’d like to share some thoughts on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Men, which I finished a few weeks ago.

When we lived in Annapolis, the boys and I used to attend a storytime at a downtown bookstore every week. The storyteller was “Nanny K,” a lovely English woman and mother of three who dressed like Mary Poppins and “flew” into and out of the store with a parasol. A few weeks into our regular attendance at storytime, I saw Nanny K at my graduate school, discovered she was a fellow student, and learned that her real name was Katrina.

Over the next year and a half, my friendship with Katrina grew, in part through our wonderful conversations about books, both the ones we were reading ourselves and those we loved for our children. Among the many books she recommended to me for my boys was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men. 

Unlike Alcott’s famous Little Women, I had never heard of Little Men until Katrina mentioned it. As a sequel to the former book, it follows the life of one of the sisters, Jo, and her German husband, Fritz Bhaer, as they run a school for boys.

The novel focuses on the development of the children in their school, where the students also live. We see the educational philosophy of “Mother and Father Bhaer”—as the children call Jo and Fritz—made manifest in the relationships of the adults and children to one another and in the resolution of various conflicts and even tragedies. That philosophy is primarily one of love and gentle correction that respects the natural virtues and aspirations of children, provided that they have a stable and happy environment and good adult models.

The story is sweetly amusing as Alcott clearly delights in childish ways and in observing the moral and intellectual development of boys at various ages and with very different temperaments and gifts. As a mother of boys, this was enough to keep me reading the story.

Boys and their shenanigans

 

However, on the whole, I didn’t really enjoy it and my dislike raised a few questions for me. First, it is unclear what audience Alcott intended for the book. Did she write it for adults? for boys or girls or both? I couldn’t imagine any of the above fully engaging in the story.

Alcott’s personal endorsement of the educational philosophy is too obvious; the plot seems heavy-handed in its sentimental, picturesque view of the children and the adults. In this way, it smacks of an overly adult self-awareness about a particular vision for education and its desired results. As an adult, I found this boring and a bit too predictable.

Relatedly, I do not think it is good for children (nor is it appealing to them) to be too aware of adult judgments of their personalities (whether positive or negative) and their project of educating them. These days I often hear parents talking about their children to them or within ear shot of them, labeling them as “such and such type” or over-analyzing them and nit-picking their education.  In trying to make sense of our children’s behavior, it is very easy to do this (I have done it), and it is certainly normal although I do not think we should be letting young kids overhear these kinds of conversations. It fixes in their own minds labels and self-conceptions that might not be correct, or if correct, still malleable.

For this reason, I cannot easily imagine children enjoying this book, even though it is about children. I think boys in particular would resist its adult perspective on and “taming” of them. It does not present the boys through their own eyes, but through those of a very feminine, sentimental narrator.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excellent stories about children undergoing moral formation with strong parental characters. One of my favorites is Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which she shares stories of her husband Almanzo’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York. Almanzo’s father is the second most important character in the story, and Wilder relates many instances of the father teaching nine-year-old Almanzo and even punishing him. But, we see their relationship mostly from Almanzo’s perspective: he knows that his father is teaching him certain virtues and skills, and he knows that his father loves him, but if his father has any particular judgments about Almanzo’s personality or his future adulthood, neither he nor we are privy to them.

Although I thus accuse Alcott’s novel of projecting her educational philosophy too heavily on the characters, there was much in that philosophy that resonated with me. The boys were given freedom and responsibility in various ways like personal garden plots, pets, and business ventures. They had lots of time for play. The main instruction in virtue was through modeling and through natural consequences like the loss of their peers’ respect or the adults’ trust because of misbehavior. For Father Bhaer, their teacher, the main punishment for lazy or bad work was the knowledge of his disappointment with them.

This generally resounds with the primary impulses of parenting and teaching today. We teach through gentle encouragement, self-esteem boosting, and modeling correct behavior. “Love is all you need” kind of stuff…

However, this vision of virtue formation also raises many suspicions on my part, for it assumes a child for whom the emotional and relational consequences of their actions are the most salient. For some this is due to nature; for others, due to their their rationality, which comes with age and experience. It takes a rational child to understand—in a moment of anger, willfulness, laziness, jealousy, etc—that the disappointment of their loving parents or peers is worse for them than not having whatever thing they are desiring.

The following episode illustrates what I mean. The children, under the leadership of the oldest among them, are going out berry picking in some fields a good distance from the house. Mother Bhaer, despite her better judgment, allows her four-year-old son to go with the group after he very cutely pleads with her. Robby, as he is so named, ends up getting lost alongside an older, more mischievous girl who lives with them and it is not until after a tormented search through the night in the woods that Mother Bhaer finds the two of them asleep in the leaves somewhere.

Now, the sheer fear of having been lost probably would have been enough to keep Robby from wondering off like that again, but the next day Mother Bhaer punishes the two of them by confining them to a very pleasant room and loosely tying them up for a little while so that they can appreciate the freedom which they had abused. After she leaves the room, the girl realizes that she can easily untie them and does so, but then they both feel guilty for how much worry they must have caused her and tie themselves back up.

Frankly, I just don’t believe many four-year-olds would do this. In a mother’s dream world, children would be able to make decisions and feel proper remorse based on how much she loves them…but most of the time they don’t. So, instead, we utilize some other sort of pain (whether loss of a beloved toy or having to sit in time out or even a smack on the hand or rear) or the fear of it to instill in them the proper remorse and regret that would teach them not to behave that way again.

But, Alcott’s adults generally avoid using fear and pain to teach the children lessons, and this feature of their schooling and parenting led me to reflect more seriously on whether and how these can be appropriately and lovingly used to teach children.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal written by a Chinese-American woman living in China described her son’s experience in an elite Chinese public school, which he started attending when he was three-years-old. At first, she was shocked by the use of force, stern punishment, and intimidation by the teachers, who are revered in society, to achieve the high standards of memorization in language and mathematics among the young children. Yet, she saw her son trying things that her gentle encouragement had not pushed him to do, and he was flourishing and enjoying school. Anyway, the article remarked on the attitudes of the Chinese toward teaching and what American schools systems could learn from them— despite some of their harsh and severe ways.

I thought that her article overlooked several important negative aspects of the Chinese schooling; nonetheless, I appreciated her point that the contemporary American emphasis on giving children freedom for self-expression and motivating them through gentle, positive encouragement could be hurting more than helping them, especially if it undermines a proper sense of adult authority. There is a place for punishment in teaching, the problem is finding the proper expression of it.

To give one final example, I’ll turn to Farmer Boy again. When I read it most recently, sometime last year, I was very struck by a particular event that had never stood out to me before. Almanzo had accompanied his father and some other men to cut ice from a frozen lake (or river, I can’t remember), and he got too close to the edge of the hole and nearly fell into the freezing water. Fortunately, one of the men caught him before he was submerged. His worried father ran over immediately, but, to my surprise, did not embrace or comfort his startled son. Instead, he looked Almanzo sternly in the eyes, told him that he ought to know better than to do something so dangerous and warned him that if he ever did something like that again, he would whip him.

If that were my child, I probably would have hugged him out of concern for his fear and the relief of my own panic at his near-death. But, Almanzo was eight-years-old and was being careless. Which response would more powerfully instill an awareness of the serious foolishness of his behavior—the kind he needs for basic self-preservation? One might wish that a mother’s loving heartache at the fear of losing him would be enough, but it’s probably not.

And which, then, is more fully motivated by love or the desire for the good of the chid? I do not endorse whipping, but I was struck by how much I could sense the father’s love in that moment, even though he was threatening and punitive. Ultimately, I think that either mode of response—that which comforts or that which instills fear—could be appropriate given the circumstances and the child, as long as it is informed by a loving and reasonable discernment of the child’s welfare and what they need to learn in that moment. This requires a certain detachment on the part of the parent from that which they desire: some overly desire love and comfort from their children, others crave authority and obedience at the expense of the child’s dignity.

So, there you have it. Despite recommendation from an admired friend, I will not be having my sons read Little Men when they’re older. However, I will have them read Farmer Boy, and I will read it too, again and again.

2 Comments

  1. I liked that Eva. I repect Almanzo’s Fathers response more because it suspends that gratification of affection to teach that falling into the ice would be a terrible ordeal for everyone and could lead to death so dont you dare be so callous again ! Love must be a little bit cold at those times when behavior has to change.

  2. Thank you for another wonderful post I have read it twice 🙂

    “These days I often hear parents talking about their children (…), labeling them as “such and such type” or over-analyzing them..”

    So true!

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