Mrs. Westerholm is a Registered Nurse, housewife, and student of liberty of Inglewood, California.
The little sounds a bit shocking. But the situation which inspired it was shocking, too. No political rally, no public demonstration, no wild oration was the cause. It was only a group of small boys playing "cowboys" in the back yard—playing with all the shrieks and shouts and swaggers so traditional to the game. When all the shooting was over and the gun smoke cleared, the "good guys" had won—also traditional. So, what’s shocking? Simply this: William "Billy the Kid" Bonnie, Jesse James, and Patrick Garrett constituted the entire cadre of "good guys." These were the illustrious gentlemen almost deified by ten impressionable and passionate young men of eight summers average age, an age most notably prone to physical action, personal identification, and black and-white interpretation of supposed fact—capable of comprehending the difference between fact and fiction, but only in a broad general sense. They ask if this person really lived, and in this place; and if these answers are affirmative, they then accept all of the legend as presented.
(It had not been presented to them that one of their heroes was a psychopathic murderer, one a thief and killer, and the third a man who trod both sides of the line, using the law to suit his own personal interests and benefits.)
This problem was not as small as one might suppose on first glance. Here were children who were forging ideas and ideals on which they would build eventual mature philosophies and consequent behavior patterns. These were boys and girls who would one day have the task of perpetuating our various freedoms, and in many instances the far harder task of regaining lost freedom. Would they be apt to actively defend heritages of which they had no real understanding or conviction, and thus no real respect? We doubted it seriously.
As I handed out cookies and lemonade, I studied their eager restless faces and listened—really listened—to the words. For a brief moment I had the impression that I was listening to strangers. These were not the same children who came running with their skinned knees, their empty stomachs, their fabulous new ideas, and their endless questions of "Why?" They were the same, of course; it was only the listener who was different. This time there were purpose and attention to the listening.
The Essence of the Heroic
That evening we guided the after-dinner chatter to the subject of playtime heroes and why they were considered heroic. The answers solidified my sense of shock, and shame, too. The "heroic" figures were almost all gunfighters, with a few wartime Aces and a couple of contemporary "name singers" thrown in for leavening. Television was the primary authority quoted, and to a lesser extent motion pictures and comic books. So much for the history lessons at school and the books and stories read aloud at home. These apparently had not been enough, or strong enough, to fill the appetite for identification. We pursued it further and discovered that out of some twenty truly great and dramatic historical names, only four were clearly recognized—and three of these were due solely to the efforts of Mr. Walt Disney and his enlightened and refreshing entertainment! Hardly an inspiring score. We were not proud of ourselves as parents that evening.
There were no established "study groups" for this age level to which we could turn for help or advice. The local elementary teachers were sympathetic and helpful in suggesting research materials we might find useful, but they pointed out that there was only so much of the school day which could be devoted to history without slighting some other subject.
We decided to deal with this just as we had other subjects such as nature study, chemistry, elementary physics: we would start at home. If our youngsters could learn at home about atomic structure, and the
We had always spoken matter-of-factly in our home about democracy, free enterprise, responsibility to self and nation, equality and initiative—but we had neglected to give these concepts personifications with which the children could identify. They had thus sought and found their own heroes. We knew we dared not perpetrate any abrupt attack on their beloved men of brawn. Children are fiercely loyal to their chosen idols, be they contemporary, factual, or legendary. All we could do was to present to them what we believed were even more attractive substitutes, and let them choose which they would accept.
Some people have tried to tell us that we should simply demand that they accept what we offered—"After all, they’re only children, they should obey you." Nonsense! First of all, you cannot demand belief; it just won’t work. To believe is to accept with your mind. You can command bodies to obey. You cannot command a mind to accept. And, really now, how can you expect to teach anyone to respect and admire the basic principles of freedom if you deny one of the fundamentals of freedom to the one you are teaching?
Of course, teaching the quite young child is different from teaching older students. Obviously, to give him a totally free choice of acceptance at this age might well result in his learning the hard way why you do not run in front of a truck, or set fire to the house, or jump off the roof! You have to use good plain common sense. Also, one must naturally assume the responsibility of selecting material for presentation, since Junior is not yet old enough to take on his own research activities, or to evaluate the degree of truth presented. Indeed, this is one of the most serious responsibilities of parenthood.
Changing Their Ideas
What we decided on was really a quite deliberate course of "brainwashing." Stop and think for a moment of the actual meaning of this hated and feared term—a washing, a cleansing; not a removal or exchange of the object "washed." Furthermore, this cleansing is accomplished only with the consent of the subject—a gradual cleansing away of false values and interpretations by the regular use of the soap of truth, and truth alone. We would give the Jesse Jameses a fair hearing, but no gilding of the legend; nor would we give our candidates more than a fair hearing. This was our brainwashing.
For us, fortunately, the medium was relatively simple. We had long had story times for the children, so our line of communication was already established. All we had to do now was choose our story material deliberately and carefully, and be patient about results. The latter was as difficult as it always is. But the former, the finding of the material, proved far more difficult than we had imagined. Our history is richly peopled with truly prodigious examples of bravery and wisdom, both dramatic and appealing. The problem was to find books and stories which were factual and realistic, and still within the vocabulary and ideological limitations of young children. There were some, to be sure; but for the main part we found ourselves reading several histories and biographies of each person, then condensing the total into individual vignettes. We also tried to hold as much general background information in reserve as possible, to meet the simply amazing number of questions children fire at you.
Children are marvelously perceptive and often sharply analytical. Where many adults tend to accept a side-point because the main body of the topic is "proved," the child will jump gleefully on the unsuspecting side-point; and you’re off on the track of Indian lore, gunsmithing, early agriculture, animal husbandry, or the gustatory attributes of squirrel stew! If we didn’t have the answers (and blushingly often we didn’t), it was back to the books. And it was fun!
A Growing Study-Group
Gradually we found our story circle growing, as other youngsters in the neighborhood dropped in, stayed that day, and returned the next. One day a question was asked regarding "Billy the Kid," I took a deep breath and quietly gave as brief and factual an account of his life as I could. There were no yowls of protest—only a moment of digestive silence. The one vehement comment was, "Man! That guy on television sure oughta bone-up!" I felt like a general who has just won a decisive battle. The boys accepted the truth quite matter-of-factly, I believe, because they now had new and steadier heroes to turn to for identification and consolation.
And so it goes. We think it is showing successful results. There are no scientific or really reliable methods to measure our progress, naturally. We have to judge by such things as the buffalo hide-hunter replacing the "sod-buster" as villain; and the number of bears shot in our back yard per week, as opposed to the number of six-gun duels; and the type of questions asked in the story circle. We did not attempt, nor expect, to achieve any radical changes by this small project. All we hoped to do was help these young eagles to become more aware of their national heritage—to instill the respect and awareness of what has been accomplished by some of our forefathers—to be knowingly proud of their heritage. We believe they are. We further hope that as they grow older they will carry on their own research and inquiry, as they realize how much the past has to teach the present.
The only materials you need are a good library, a little gift of gab, a love of the truth, and a large-sized cookie jar. Just a handful of children—but this handful will soon be adult citizens. They will one day be spreading their own respective ideas and actions throughout the nation as they take up their individual places and professions. What they do then is up to them. I rather think we shall be proud of every one of them.
More than once I have been asked if I think it is really wise or worth-while to spend so much time on such a limited field when there is so much community work that needs doing. It is certainly true that there is much for all of us to do in many activity spheres; and I do not limit myself exclusively to the children. True, I shall probably never have enough time, or inclination, to be a "social success." I also doubt that I shall ever write anything profound or nationally significant; nor be an active member of any importantly influential group or club. It does not even appear that I shall ever have enough time for as much serious libertarian study and research as I’d like. But, perhaps my children will. I honestly believe that eventually this may prove more important to the nation, and more pleasing to God, than any other personally tempting endeavor might be. At least it seems so for me. I am grateful for the opportunity.