Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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Parenting lessons in THE JUNGLE BOOK

My fourteen year old grandson and I saw Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK yesterday-I’m in the east visiting family in the Berkshires and Westchester.  As I watched the wolf pack’s elders teach the pups the Law of the Jungle, and provide examples of how to become worthy of the pack’s trust, I thought of the teen who killed four people while driving drunk.  His defense?  That his wealthy parents spoiled him with material goods so much so that he could not tell right from wrong.  His sentence?  Ten years probation.   Last year, he was charged with violating the probation by drinking and taking drugs.   His mother took him to Mexico, but, thank heaven, they were brought back: his mother is in jail, and he is waiting trial as an adult

Thinking about parenting made me think of a book I wrote that was published in 1981 and stayed in print ten years–some copies occasionally appear online.   The title is SETTING LIMITS: DISCIPLINE AND FREEDOM IN TODAY’S FAMILY by Beth Michel.  The premise of the book is that parenting is not adversarial.  The foundation of the system is that parents are not meant to be friends to their children.   They are meant to be mentors who help a child grow through childhood and adolescence, so that when the child stands on the threshold of adulthood, it has self-discipline; a strong work ethic; and a personal ethical code based on the information it’s received about morality, ethics, and in many cases, religious beliefs.  The child also has a sense of self that isn’t based on anything it can lose, or that can be taken from it.  That, as my father told me, leaves education and the character to use it.

The method the book presents worked when the book was in print, and it works now.   I have given the book or a summary of it to numerous parents who are delighted with how simple and effective this method is.   It rests on the principle that with privilege goes responsibility.  If a child chooses not to carry out the agreed-upon responsibilities, then the privileges are lost.   We began this method when a child turned five.   We discussed the privileges the child wanted, and the MANAGEABLE responsibilities that went with them. When a child asked how we would know it didn’t want to carry out its responsibilities, we would answer that we noticed the child was behaving like a three year old, which we understood, as adults also have times they wish they could go back to childhood.  However, we believed the child should remain three years old until being five looked attractive.  This period could be as short as one day or as long as three: longer periods were rarely necessary, because our children learned quickly that choices have consequences, and the best or worst of these might affect family members, but they would affect the chooser most.

We never had to make up punishments that had little or no connection to the “crime.”  Nor did we consider a child having to forego privileges punishment.  The consequences had been established, the child made the choice.

The animals in The Jungle Book had a much better grasp on what parenting is supposed to do than many human parents, in my view.  They knew, as I did, that so long as our children become productive, honorable, compassionate people, we have achieved our goals.

Being mentors to their children doesn’t prevent parents from having fun with them. Family meals, vacations and outings, celebrations for occasions ranging from braces being taken off to college graduations, all provide opportunities for closer bonds which can last a lifetime.  Gradually, as children become adults, the hours spent helping them find the path that will take them to the person they want to be,  are rewarded by friendships that are different from any other, because ideally, the parent and child have known each other since the birth of one, sharing perceptions and memories that belong only to them.

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Beach Memories

In spring my thoughts turn to Navarre Beach, where my daughters and I spent so many happy days.   The fourth daughter and friends discovered it on a post-graduation trip: at that time it was still “Florida’s Most Well-Kept Secret.”   A few years later, the three daughters living in town and I agreed we needed time at the beach, the only problem being that none of us could afford anything fancy.  After research and many phone calls to realtors, we found a house on the beach that could sleep ten: our group had expanded, with people coming and going through-out the week, diligently paying their share of the rent and groceries.

The house maintenance wasn’t the best, but we had gulf views, lots of room, and a group of people ranging from 18 to 50.   Three writers, one theater director, one actor and the rest people with wit, intelligence and great senses of humor.

It was so cold that only by lying in the shelter of a dune could anyone stay on the beach, and entering the water was impossible. Some few souls braved Mother Nature, racing back to the house and hovering near the heaters to recover from the chill.

We took turns cooking: the most memorable meal was the one prepared by a native New Orleanian who decided to follow Paul Prudhomme’s footsteps and make blackened red-fish, followed by New Orleans style bread pudding.   The rest of us sat at the counter dividing the kitchen from the living room, watching Chris prepare the fish. Suddenly, smoke rose from the skillet, thick smoke that enveloped us.  The theater director grabbed paper napkins, handed one to each of us, and then dropped to the floor, telling us to follow him.  And so we all crawled out, choking and coughing and laughing, a performance our chef did not appreciate until his own sense of humor kicked in and he laughed, too.

The fish emerged from the smoke like the proverbial Phoenix, and was enjoyed by all.  The New Orleans bread pudding was fantastic, and at the end of the week we named Chris the Best Chef on the Beach.

I have spent a great deal of time at that beach, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, but that first trip stands in my memory as the benchmark of what a beach trip should be: good people, good karma, good food, sunny days, moonlit nights, love and laughter.


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A Book Lover’s Story

I fell in love with books at an early age.   My parents were both great readers, and since TV did not exist, and videos unheard of, my introduction to the joys books provide began with my mother reading to me.   My favorite was THE OLD WOMAN AND HER PIG, a repetitive tale of how an old woman tried to get her pig over the style.  I loved the pictures, I loved the rhythm of the languages, and my patient mother read it to me every day until finally I was old enough to hear fairy tales, and the old woman and her pig faded into things past.

My own children considered the day they could print their name and get a library card one of the high points of childhood.   Older sisters would show the initiate their favorite books: each of the five would chose eight books, and I learned to make a list of all forty, so we would be sure to return the whole batch.

I studied psycholinguistics in graduate school, concentrating on the development of thought and language, and one reason I deplore some aspects of technology is that there really is a difference between reading a book and watching videos, etc.   The reason is that once someone else’s interpretation of the subject is before us, our brains have difficulty in interpreting the subject themselves.  This is important, because our brains retain information best when they have processed it, bringing in bits and pieces that enhance the new information, utilizing prior experiences with the information that help explain it.   The brain has to be focused on a subject in order to store it properly, and this happens most when it, not someone else, processes the information.

During a particularly difficult time in my life, I reread Louisa Alcott’s little women books.  They took me back to a time of innocence and belief in the basic goodness of human beings, and because I had read them myself,   they also brought back the settings in which I read them.  For reasons I won’t go into, my books were kept from me for three years.  When my lawyer finally got access to them , together we filled his car and mine, and, bless him, he carried them into my house and helped me put them on shelves.  The next morning I called him and said I’d had the best night’s sleep in years, because my friends were once more with me.

Readers are rarely bored, for through book  we can visit other times, other cultures.   We can sail with pirates, we can climb mountains and paddle down rivers.   We can stand in awe of the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower, or the Grand Canyon and the French Alps.   We can talk with giants of history and literature and science.   We can expand our knowledge and our experience without leaving our chairs.  And most important, we can set our own timeline.   We might read one passage several times.   We might skip over other ones.   We are in charge, with no barriers between our brains and the book before us.  We can “hear” the many voices in which writers tell their stories.   We are judge and jury, and can form our own opinions of what we read.  The title of one of books in Anthony Powell’s series is BOOKS DO FURNISH A ROOM.   They do, and they also furnish a mind.