Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

The Kids Can Be All Right

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen (ISI, 256 pp., $26.95)


A mother of six in Utah was cited for misdemeanor child neglect for allowing her son to walk home from elementary school — wearing an orange safety vest and a helmet — after his school-bus route was discontinued. In Britain, a new training video for music teachers instructs them never to make physical contact with their students, even when adjusting the position of their hands on instruments. Half of women under 30 don’t know how to hem a garment or cook a roast. As for finding Djibouti on a map, or reciting poems from memory, you wouldn’t want to ask a Millennial. Modern man seems to be in turns smothering, patronizing, and neglecting his offspring in a way his own parents never would have recognized or countenanced.

Enter Prof. Anthony Esolen with Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a serious book with a facetious title and ten chapters’ worth of advice on how to raise curious, virtuous, and literate sons and daughters. Esolen and his wife have raised one of each; additionally, Esolen has translated Dante for the Modern Library and written The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization. It might also be relevant that, going by the stories he tells in this book, his own childhood growing up in Pennsylvania coal country as the grandson of Italian immigrants involved plenty of imagination — and adventure, warmth, and humor. On top of all of this, Esolen is a college professor, which means he has firsthand knowledge of the generation raised by the methods now prevailing. He knows the experience of a healthy childhood, the fruits of a narrow modern one, the treasures of the Western canon, and the trials of bringing up children of one’s own: in other words, all the knowledge we would want an author of such a book to have.

His thesis is not a new one, and as a result much about this book depends on execution. Assuming the reader is already sympathetic to Esolen’s general arguments, the question is not whether the book is persuasive but whether it will teach the reader anything he doesn’t already know. Does it argue for a traditional curriculum and against “helicopter parenting” in ways that are interesting and even sometimes surprising? Will the reader enjoy the time she spends with this book, regardless of whether she needs convincing that children do not need to be protected from fairy tales, the outdoors, and God? Ten Ways is remarkable because the answer to all of those questions is yes.

“Self-expression is the finest antidote for a perky imagination ever invented.” “Tell your children that rifles and all the other implements of hunting are simply evil. Best to do this while your mouth is full of a cheeseburger from McDonald’s.” Esolen’s flair for aphorism is given plenty of room to shine by the Screwtape Letters–type voice he adopts. Even his chapter titles delight: “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, or They Used to Call It ‘Air,’” and “Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists, or All Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited.” But if the dark side of aphorism is cliché, Esolen consistently avoids the temptation. He even avoids little one-word clichés: A passage about the overstructured dullness of the modern school day notes that it “cannot be called working at a ‘grindstone,’ because a real grindstone is a swift and lovely tool, and has the property of sharpening.”

To take another example of Esolen’s originality, his chapter affirming that boys and girls play differently (something denied nowadays) is more sensitive than many of its type. “Take boys and girls to the lake, and the girls will go for a walk around the lake, or will swim and talk, while the boys will play chicken-fights in the water. Give them a room full of hammers, board, nails, and saws . . .” Here, he could have gotten away with saying that girls will disdain the hammer and nails entirely and ask for dolls and a dress-up trunk instead. But Esolen’s sentence concludes: “. . . the girls will make something nice to go on a wall, and the boys will build a battering ram to knock the wall down.” It’s clear that Esolen is advocating a real-world version of traditional femininity and not a caricature one, because his girls can still play with hammers. On a number of other topics where it is hard to be anything but trite — the poverty of sitcom humor, the importance of keeping books in the house, the cowardice behind liberals’ denigration of military virtue — Esolen is a pleasure to read, because he always explains what he doesn’t like about the modern way of doing things rather than simply that he doesn’t like it and neither should you.

#page#Another difference between Ten Ways and your average gripe about the decline of the West is that this book calls its villains by name. Rather than vaguely pin the blame on some loss of Western values and nerve, Esolen cites specific expert and popular authors who, in good faith, have defended modern childrearing. Specificity makes his attacks more brutal. Here he is quoting Michael J. Basso’s Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality — look what he can do in a single set of brackets: “‘Unfortunately,’ he says, wiping a reptilian tear from the eye, ‘many adults are more interested in their own values, religious beliefs, agendas (plans to accomplish their personal goals [sic; Basso apparently believes that people who cannot understand that simple word can fathom the depths of human sexuality]) and power.’”

Esolen’s childhood memories are a highlight of the book; they prove that he can show as well as tell. Whether it’s asking his mother for help in reading the family Bible (the definition of “boils” was a point of trouble), sledding down “blessedly treacherous” hills, or trying to get his grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup down on paper before she loses her memory completely — she begins, “First you wring the chicken’s neck” — Esolen’s stories are vivid and charming.

And it’s obvious that whatever kind of education these experiences added up to, it worked. I don’t simply mean that Esolen grew up to be an author of tangible imagination, but that the way he was raised, apart from natural intelligence or ambition, clearly had something to do with it. Take his passage about a 1916 silver dime, which had a bust of Liberty on the front and the Roman fasces on the obverse:

There’s a lot to read in a coin like that. It was, for one, a serious coin; not an advertisement for tourism. It featured no portrait of any particular person. In fact, no American coin had done so, until the Lincoln penny debuted in 1909, the centennial of the President’s birth. Liberty, apparently, was more important than personality. The people who minted and who used the coin were expected to know a little bit about history in their own right — otherwise the fasces would have made no sense.

A lovely passage in itself, but even more delightful is to make the connection between this passage in Chapter 6 and another in Chapter 9, where he explains that coin collecting was a family hobby that started with an uncle and spread from cousin to cousin until the bug reached Esolen, who in turn passed it on to his younger brother.

Before he reaches page 5 of his book, Esolen has told the story of Sissy from Dickens’s Hard Times, the traveling-circus horse breaker’s daughter whose schoolmaster, Gradgrind, asks her to define what a horse is. When she stands dumbfounded, unable to fit the richness of her experience into a dry list of features, Gradgrind turns to another pupil, Bitzer, who gives him what he wants: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth,” etc. Life is made up of experience and wisdom; books, like Gradgrind’s school, are about knowledge. It can be hard to translate one into the other, but Esolen has managed it. Any parent who takes his book and translates it back into life will surely be pleased with the result.

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