I was thinking the other day about the first time one of my children’s teachers called us in for a conference. Our kiddo was in kindergarten.
“Mr. & Mrs. Breen,” said she. “No matter what I tell your child to do, the answer is 'I don’t have to.'”
We were baffled. We never got that at home from this child.
“I had to meet you,” said the teacher. “I had to see what sort of parents raised a child who feels they don’t have to do what all the other children do.”
We did not raise our kids to start a revolution. We didn’t set an example of obvious non-conformity. There was nothing we could point to that explained it.
When we returned home, our progeny got a talking to about respecting authority, and leaving any sense of entitlement in the drawer, for later. Much later. Like until they reach the age of majority, and pay their own bills to boot.
Deep down, I realize now that I was alarmed and concerned about how my kids will navigate their school years and later function in the work force. But I also understood them in the deepest way. There are so many “have to” thrown about, and the line— to question and accept or chart a different way— can be a fine one.
I didn’t want my children to exercise this discernment too early. But I hope we planted a seed that will let them do it as adults. Blind obedience to conventional wisdom robs any person of their full humanity.
I think about these lines from Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American novels. Conventional wisdom in that time and place said that a runaway slave was property that must be returned. Huck Finn is conflicted between what he was told was right, what everyone he ever knew insisted was right, and something inside that said, do I have to? Do I REALLY have to?
He resolves it thus:
“I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”—”
As we write stories for younger readers, we need to introduce the idea of this conflict. Gingerly, carefully, thoughtfully. But I feel a duty to bring it in, because it is important, and no full character, no full story and no life can be full— without learning to ask, do I have to?