Tuesday, November 17, 2015


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?


  1. Mirka, sounds like our kids and the discussions we've had with them ... and from a very early age, they recognized that their actions have consequences. I always pray the positive feedback loop will help them to grow into kind and compassionate people ...

    I think I love children's literature best because it grapples with the important questions. Do I have to? Should I?

    Great example from Twain.

  2. I don't think your child was the first to say "I don't have to." It might have been some misunderstanding about what the teacher said. The teacher is a stranger when children start school. We teach our children to stay away from strangers and not do what strangers tell them to do. Who knows what was going through the head of your little one?


  3. Our first meeting with a teacher was when Michael was in pre-k. Let's just say I realized I had to watch my language from that point on.

  4. My daughter listens better to her teachers than to my husband and me. She's on her best behavior for others and saves the other side for home. Not that she's a bad kid by any means. She's not.

  5. Being here with my daughter and her brand new baby, plus her other two pre-schoolers makes me realize all over again what a challenge parenting is. I'm so grateful for my own two parents and continue to be in awe that they managed to instill in all 6 of us a deep caring for other people. (They, of course, would have given the credit to God.)

  6. Love that part in Huck Finn. It is tough sometimes trying to find that happy medium between a child that can think independently and respect for those around them.

  7. You are right, Mirka--as writers we do need to introduce the idea of conflict. As much as we try to guard our children from anything "bad," they need the tools to learn to deal with all types of conflict. Very thoughtful post...

  8. Sometimes I feel this light souring in my chest when I think back on the times I always obeyed what I was told to do at home and in school. Partly out of fear, and partly out of the desire to please for praise. It's not bad for a child to question 'Do I have to?' Just as it's absolutely necessary for our characters to question it, too.

  9. Your post made me wonder what that child took away from his interaction with the teacher? I'm always amazed at the differences between how we parents "see" situations and our kids' versions (even now as I chat about the old days with my adult kids - it's like we're talking about completely different experiences sometimes).