Monday, August 22, 2016

Little Old Ladies 6: The Cures of “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle”

“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle certainly knew how to make work fun and she also knew that there are certain kinds of work that children love to do even though they do not know how very well.”
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, Chapter 1: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Herself

I blame Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for many of my obsessive thoughts in childhood.  One was a constant looking up at the ceiling, trying to imagine it being the floor (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s house is built upside-down on a whim, just to satisfy her own childhood curiosity on the subject). While interesting, it also caused massive vertigo once or twice, and made me look a bit batty to the casual onlooker all the other times. Another was the irrational but overwhelming fear of radishes growing out of my skin. I’ve never been able to eat radishes since. One never knows where they came from.

Putting aside these inherent phobias, let’s talk about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle herself. Limiting myself to the first book, because that’s the only one I read as a child, there’s really not too much revealed about the mysterious widow in the upside-down house aside from what author Betty MacDonald provides in the first chapter. There we learn that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is the widow of a pirate, the ordinary housewives of the 1940s think her strange and don’t go near her, but all their children love her and go about her house and yard as if it were a playground.

After the first chapter the housewives start to realize something. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a cure for any childhood “disease” of misbehavior or neurosis. Are your children Never-go-to-bedders?  Answer-backers? Slow-eater-tiny-bite-takers? Well look no further, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle knows how to handle them

Usually her cure has something to do with letting the kids do what they want until they’re sick of it (or the consequences, or both), at which time they’ll stop of their own volition and become perfect children. A girl who randomly decides she hates baths is allowed to get dirtier and dirtier until she has enough soil on her forehead to sprout radishes overnight. (Yep, that explains some nightmares I’ve had about root vegetables over the years.)

I recently reread this book. It’s odd how, after probably twenty years, I could remember so in minute detail so many parts of the story as if it were yesterday. It certainly made an impression on me, which is almost surprising. The characters aren’t all that distinct: the fathers and mothers are very Cleaverish, and the kids themselves don’t have much more than a chapter each to develop—and honestly they’re pretty bratty and unlikable. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, after the first chapter where she is presented, literally “phones in” her character for most of the stories, when the distraught mothers plead with her about their unruly children and ask for directions on how to cure them.

One thing that I did not notice during my initial reading as an elementary school-aged reader, was how the parents dealt with things. It seemed at once aged and yet oddly—almost disconcertingly—modern. From a feminist perspective, the stories are rather disheartening. The mothers are housewives, devoting their lives to cleaning the house and making meals and ensuring their children are perfect compared to other children. The fathers are usually presented as having the attitude of, “You’d better straighten out those kids, June,” speaking over a newspaper and cup of coffee in a detached tone. True discipline—grounding, extra chores, even spanking was considered okay at that time—are not used. It’s no wonder such lax discipline requires the super-nanny of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to comes to the rescue of such helpless parental figures.

Now let’s look at the cures. As a kid, I thought these cures were fun to read about. As an adult, I don’t have children yet, but I have watched with growing interest the various parenting techniques of my peers, and have volunteered with children of various ages myself. My opinion? Human nature would not allow Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures to work. Children are constantly growing, not only physically but emotionally and mentally. As they grow, they are curious. They push boundaries. This is good, helps them to learn. But when lacking discipline from parents and self-control, they push the boundaries of what they can get away with, behavior-wise. I see it all the time at the workplace, where parents bring in their undisciplined kids who have no idea how to behave themselves politely. Screaming, crying for no reason, running about, breaking things, and knowing no matter how much your parents threaten “If you don’t quiet down we won’t go to ice cream after” that you will definitely get a waffle cone. 

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s cures hinge on the fact that it gives children control. The thing is, control is not only a powerful thing, it’s a scary thing. Children are just not suited to making some decisions. They lack the maturity. And besides, giving children such responsibilities (such as “disciplining themselves,” or worse “disciplining Mommy”!) is basically forcing children into an adult sphere they’re not ready for. It’s a parent’s job to prepare their child for adulthood, yes; that’s where teaching self-discipline and manners and basic common sense comes in. But it is also a parent’s job to protect that child from adulthood until they’re ready for it, not force them into responsibilities or control without equipping them with the ability to excel in it.  

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