The Glass Castle

So, The Glass Castle. Wow again. This is a book that's going to stick with me. Written by Jeannette Walls, it's the story of her incredibly nomadic, difficult, extremely poor and wildly uncertain childhood. Her parents were free spirits, to say the least: her father came across as brilliant, but he was an alcoholic who also had an outrageously grandiose sense of self; her mother was likely bipolar, incredibly self-absorbed and seemed to lack any significant ability to connect with and care for others. They moved frequently, often in the middle of the night to avoid all manner of things (like the law), often went hungry and lacked adequate housing and amenities like electricity, plumbing and so forth. In a nutshell, Walls and her three siblings had very little materially, saw some really awful stuff during their childhoods and often seemed to be raising themselves. However, what struck me about this story was that while her parents were abject failures in some regards, in other ways it seems they managed to teach their kids some valuable lessons. Both parents were bright and placed tremendous value on knowledge. The three oldest kids were avid and advanced readers, had a great deal of exposure to the arts (Walls' mom had visions of becoming a famous artist and painted constantly; Walls' sister is now a very accomplished artist) and knew a fair amount about geology, math and the like. Because the parents so often left the children to their own devices, they were independent and spent a lot of time exploring their surroundings, whatever those were at the time. Today, the oldest three kids are successful in their respective fields (sounds like the youngest sibling didn't fare well at all).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I came away from this book fairly horrified by the parents' selfishness and the many ways they neglected and didn't in any way care for their children, I did feel reflective about the ways in which the antithesis of the Walls methods can be equally damaging. We all hear about helicopter parents, those who coddle their children, never let them fall, do everything for them, basically blow smoke up their bums literally and figuratively all day long. And I don't think that's going to work out real well for those kids. What are they learning to do? How are they learning to deal with rejection/failure/challenges? What are they learning to value if nothing is hard to accomplish or come by?

The Walls kids had to struggle for pretty much everything, and while I certainly want to provide my children all the safety and love and support in the world, I do think there's something (much) to be said for backing off a bit, for letting them work out their own squabbles, for setting rules and sticking to them no matter how much they don't like them, for letting tumbles happen, for refusing to be and do everything.

Opportunities are nothing if you don't know how to appreciate and take advantage of them. Life-changing experiences don't happen without some sort of struggle. I think about how wildly and primally and intensely I love my children, how I want them to always be happy and feel safe. But to ask nothing of them, to demand nothing in return (respect, doing their fair share), to keep them shielded from all difficulties and sadnesses and disappointments seems as troubling as the kinds of neglect Walls and her siblings often experienced.

Food for thought...