December 18, 2003,
Okay, I'm getting a pogo stick for Christmas, right?" my nine-year-old daughter said briskly some days ago.
She handed me an ink-daubed bit of paper. "Because here's the rest of my list," she said. It was jaw-droppingly lavish and presumptuous: "proper chemistry set, proper robotics set, clothes, books, dolls, locket, $50, six free movie tickets, big box of Belgian chocolates, camera, eight surprises."
"Eight surprises?" I asked, faintly.
She took the paper back, crossed out the "8," and wrote in a "3." "Now is it okay?"
Is it okay? Where does one start? More to the point, I thought I already had started. We are not lavish gift givers in our household, and the fact that our children receive more than one toy at Christmas is due largely to the size and generosity of my husband's side of the family.
Yet here was our otherwise polite, sensitive child, seeing nothing unseemly in demanding and expecting a long list of expensive goodies. Where does one start? With starving children in Africa? How I walked a mile to the schoolhouse in snow when I was her age? By giving her a good look at the size of the mortgage?
Aha I thought. Let's see what Karen Santorum has say on the matter. So I sped to our new copy of Everyday Graces: A Child's Book of Good Manners, and began hunting for lessons in humility. Mrs. Santorum is married to Senator Rick Santorum; more importantly, she is the mother of six, and from what I've heard of her she doubtlessly knows how to turn grasping into gratitude.
Everyday Graces is a charming book. Like William Bennett's books of virtue, and the two volumes of children's stories compiled by William F. Buckley, Everyday Graces consists of stories, poems, quotations, drawings, and commentary. The object of all these books is to strengthen the finer fibers of youthful nature through exposure to tales of heroism and compassion. Though brimming with exemplary tales, Everyday Graces is also amusingly specific about less high-minded virtues, such as refraining from spitting, and leaving a gathering before your friends tire of you.
It is also, I should say, an aesthetically satisfying book. This matters in a volume that will ideally be used for bedtime reading. The slightly rough paper stock makes a pleasant sound when you turn the pages, and it's wide enough to hold in both hands with a child on your lap.
Furthermore, it is the first children's book I've seen in ages that explicitly addresses the desirability of American patriotism. The final chapter, "Respecting Our Country," includes not only the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and The Star-Spangled Banner, but also details proper flag etiquette, as in: "When a flag passes you in a parade or when it is raised and lowered, place you hand over your heart and face the flag." Now that is useful nursery fare.
If I have any complaint with Everyday Graces, it is that children, in my experience, generally resent being read excerpts, and the book is full of them. The source material is impeccable I mentioned Pinocchio, but there's also Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and others but the problem is that if a story is good enough, and digestible enough, children want to hear the whole thing. And if the story is too advanced for their ears, then they'll tune out the excerpt, too.
My other quibble is that for a parent reading aloud, the selection veers between the sweetly accessible funny rhymes by Jack Prelutsky to the wildly inaccessible. The bluestocking in me applauds Mrs. Santorum for including a passage of Chaucer, but such refinements are lost on small-to-medium-sized children. And if the book is actually for older children to read to themselves, I fear they will be put off by admonitions to wash behind the ears.
As a family book, though, for reference, for selected nighttime readings, for cheery couplets to reinforce one's own tedious lectures about table manners and kissing aunts and the like, well, you could not ask for anything nicer. And despite what I said about excerpts, one is required to love a book that introduces modern American children to Cyrano de Bergerac.
Meghan Cox Gurdon writes a weekly column for NRO about motherhood.