Editor's Notebook: Parenting Counsel from Shakespeare
It's Shakespeare's week at Columbia HS, but he has wisdom for parents, too.
It’s not an obvious tear-jerker, and the play’s not even a tragedy. Still, I can’t make it though Act V of The Tempest without welling up, no matter how many times I read it, teach it, or even direct reluctant seventh graders to perform it.
When Miranda, who has been raised on an island with only her father, Prospero, and Caliban for mortal company, sees a company of shipwrecked nobles in front of her, she says
How many goodly creatures are there here
How beauteous mankind is!/
O brave new world,/That has such people in't!
And in a world-weary voice, speaking for parents everywhere, her father says simply,
“’Tis new to thee.”
Once, exhausted by the efforts of directing a middle school production, and relieved that we had reached Act V without calamity, I burst into tears when seventh grade Jaxon said the line. We had rehearsed that pause, the gentle gesture as pats Miranda on the shoulder, the thoughtful expression a hundred times. He got it right, so my tears confused him.
“Was it that bad?” he asked, coming off stage. “Or was it that good?”
There’s the rub; it’s both good and bad. We want to show children the world, and see them marvel at its wonders. At the same time, it’s our job to be a little cynical, and teach them not to take everything at face value. Man, that’s a hard role to play. If Prospero had trouble on a deserted island, no wonder it’s rough in the crowded suburbs.
In the same scene, Prospero sees his daughter towards a happy marriage and makes a few promises to get the sailors and himself back home. He says aloud, “This rough magic, I here abjure,” and breaks the staff that gave him powers. This, too, is a resigned parent speaking, realizing that our power – to heal a skinned knee, to “help” find money the tooth fairy may have forgotten to leave, or to make things better with a cookie – is outgrown by our children. Their problems become bigger than our solutions.
What we are then left with is empathy and advice for our children. Prospero knew that too. “Be cheerful/And think of each thing well,” he says. This not bad counsel for parents and their kids, in this, our brave new world.