As a child and still now as an adult, I find that many of my favorite books are those in which children have a lot of free time and basically explore the world and find out things on their own. I suppose these are what you would call coming of age books. Somehow I associate that designation with teenagers and in many of the books I am thinking of the children are younger so I don’t know if it is technically appropriate. Sometimes there is just one child and sometimes there is a group, often of siblings.
We are currently reading Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt. It is not clear to me in this book yet why the parents never seem to be present but I am not sure it is always necessary to know. Often the parents in these books just seem to be busy. But I am not sure it matters. The ability of the children to move through the world with little adult interference is what matters for the story. The same was true in the Railway Children, another Nesbitt book which we loved.
What would happen if grown-ups were there? They might make the children do more boring things like clean themselves and come home on time. They might give good counsel which would prevent the children from making mistakes which they do but would also not make for much of a story. Now in my own life, I do think it is wise to seek good counsel. And I hope I am an attentive mother whose children will not fall into serious situations. But I still love books like this.
Sometimes the plot device that gets the child(ren) alone involves a parent dying or abandoning their children or the children running away. A friend told me she will not let her kids read books in which the children run away because she doesn’t want to plant that idea in their heads. For some reason this does not bother me at all. I suppose because it is often a plot device, a way to get the child on their own for the sake of the story. Through books a child can explore what it would be like to be on their own as they live through the characters. In a good book there will be lessons to be learned from this shared experience. But I don’t think the lessons are usually “it is good to run away.”
I have some vague memory of a book I read as a child about a girl and a boy who lived in the woods with a raccoon. I can’t remember how they ended up there by themselves but I remember loving the book. If you have any idea what it is, please let me know so I can look it up again.
Perhaps one of the tamer series is this genre is the Boxcar children. In the first book , their parents have died and the kids fend for themselves for most for the book. I love how they set up house in the old boxcar. But even in subsequent books which are mostly about solving mysteries, they seem to have oodles of free time. Long summers at beaches and old lighthouses in which to untangle very wholesome little mysteries.
And then I wonder what we as the adults should be learning from these stories. In this society of over-scheduled children, are our kids going to be able to have their own coming of age stories? Maybe we don;t want them to have adventures worthy of some of these books, but will they find themselves if they don’t have free time and space in which to do it?
The plots of these books often involve loneliness, boredom, trials. But it is through these things that the characters grow up, find out who they are, make unusual friends. I am not advocating actually abandoning our children. But this is not so far from Charlotte Mason’s idea of masterly inactivity. We need to give our kids space and time that is not programmed by us so that they can have their own experiences and find their own interests. And if there is loneliness or struggles as part of that, we need not step in and solve every problem for them. Gold is refined through fire. If we spare our children every hardship, they will not grow as they ought.