what every kid should know
i swear i stopped reading books about the growing of children the day i peeked ahead into the “when things go wrong” chapter of “what to expect when you’re expecting,” the bible they handed out with the very first obstetrics appointment, shooshing you out the door with prenatal horse pills in one hand, “what to expect” in the other.
you might think someone wired like me might be inclined to read every roadmap under the sun. but in fact, i’m winging this act. mostly, i swing without a net on the mama trapeze.
except for when it comes to snippets of nostalgia, guidebooks and missals that harken back to a way of childhood that is no longer. only i insist it can be resurrected. should be. must be.
dozens of these titles came to me in what was the mecca of my mothering university. a little shop called sweet pea, a magic place. a place as magic as any i have known. it was a place with a proprietress who believed that the minimum daily requirements of childhood boiled down to simple playthings carved of wood, woven from pure cotton, and a vast imagination to turn those few fine things into fairy castles or gnome homes, enchanted forests or starlit rocket rides.
sweet pea is no longer, but the shopkeeper is still around. and she is still slipping me titles that do wonders to my heart, my soul, the growing of my boys.
not so many months ago, one that caught my eye was “catch a fish, throw a ball, fly a kite: 21 timeless skills every child should know,” by jeffrey lee (three rivers press, 2004). but years before i’d stumbled on “the american boy’s handy book,” centennial edition, by d.c. beard (nonpareil books, 1983), originally published in 1882.
it is the latter that i read as literature, going on as it does about how, before 1915, boyhood was seen by most grownups as a “state of natural savagery,” and then goes on to remind that savage, after all, derives from the latin silvaticus, “pertaining to the woods,” which just might be the epicenter of all essential childhood skills. boy or girl, doesn’t much matter, far as i can tell. (by the way, there is a “girl’s handy book,” which i’ve not got on my shelf.)
the handy boy’s book, written by the man who went on to found two groups (the sons of daniel boone and the boy pioneers) that would merge and become the boy scouts, is a primer that holds up huck finn as the archetypal boy.
and, delightfully, for a girl born smack dab in the middle of america, points out that a genuine boyhood can best be found in the real part of the country, ohio and missouri, two states so named. where “enough of the frontier democracy survived so that practically all boys were expected to be little savages.”
not so, the foreword tells us, on the atlantic seaboard, where “the idea of boy-as-savage was complicated by the rapidly growing class structure. a son of the upper class, and even a son of the bourgeoisie, tends to learn that self-control is what makes his class strong.”
alas, a boy in boarding school cannot whittle away precious hours in the woods. poor child.
according to the handy book, a boy could get by in boyhood with only these essentials: “a jackknife, some twine, a few fishhooks in the lining of his hat, and an ax.
“he could fend for himself all summer,” we are told.
but then, for the next 441 pages, it spells out a few more lessons: how to build a corn-stalk fiddle, how to build a minnow bucket, how to camp without a tent (a whole chapter here), how to rear a wild robin, how to spear a fish.
before it ends, it teaches how to build 10 kinds of boats, 16 kinds of kites and hot-air balloons and fishing tackle. how to build a hut from pine boughs. how to build one-person canoes. even squirt guns with astonishing range.
on and on it goes, drawing me, the wistful reader, deeper into the woods and deeper into a past that was gone before i got here.
then, along comes a modernized, and somewhat sanitized, “catch a fish,” the jeffrey lee book. he purports to pick the 21 timeless skills every child should know. while it is a trove in terms of explaining things, it is lacking in the poetry of ol’ dan beard.
mister lee, whose parents were chinese immigrants and, he says, fairly clueless about what a homespun american kid should know, stumbled on his primer the hard way. his father, he writes, was forever going to the library to try to read up on whatever skill seemed necessary to impart to his four california sons. lee, in an attempt to fill in his father’s blanks, lays out all he thinks a parent needs to know in one simple manual.
way he sees it, the essential skills are these: catch a fish, throw a ball, catch a ball, plant a tree, ride a bike, bake bread, fly a kite, juggle, build a fire, make a sand castle, play a blade of grass, skip a stone, make a paper airplane, do a magic trick, eat with chopsticks, build a wooden box, spin a yo-yo, grow a garden, make apple pie, throw a frisbee, name the stars.
i find the list charming enough. but, of course, i would edit. i think i might erase the chopsticks and the wooden box. juggling, too. no offense intended. but i might tend toward the more poetic.
i might add: catch a firefly and let it go, sleep under the stars, grill an egg on an upturned coffee can, hop across a gurgling creek, sit silently in the woods, tend to an ailing bird or a baby squirrel, make a clubhouse out of a refrigerator box, fingerpaint a rainbow.
i don’t think i could stop at 21. i might go on to 100.
just now, in fact, i’ve thought of these: sew a hand puppet, make lemonade from lemons, build a go-cart, take tea and crumpets to an old lady down the block.
egad. i could get lost here. spend my whole darn day dreaming up the essentials for every growing child. it is why, i think, i was drawn to this mama business in the first place.
i only wish i could grow enchantment for a whole planet of little children. sadly growing up in a world where so many woods have been paved over. and if you carried home a baby squirrel someone might call the police.
have at it, people. what essential skills would you put on the timeless list? the sky, of course, is the limit. go for the moon, if you so choose. i can’t wait to see what we here at the table insist is non-negotiable. perhaps we can rewrite the book on how to be a child in the third millennium before these arts become lost ones.