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I Took Parenting Cues From 'Huckleberry Finn,' & Here's How It Went

Throughout my childhood, characters from books lead me out into the world and showed me who I wanted (or didn’t want) to be when I was older. Now that I’m parenting my own little one, I don’t often have the chance to read my favorite childhood books. A few weeks ago, my almost 2-year-old son Henry, pulled Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain off the shelf – not to read it, he just likes pulling things off shelves – and I thumbed through the pages. Instead of Huckleberry's adventures leaping off the page at me, it was a quieter character who caught my eye: the Widow Douglas, Huckleberry's adoptive mother.

I re-read the book and was struck by how well she parented Huckleberry, a ball of frenetic energy. My son is younger than Huckleberry, but I can see the mischievous glint in his eye daily, and I don’t exactly know yet how to parent him, so his zest for life remains, even though we've mastered how to be polite and well-behaved. I want to be a parent who teaches values that my son can take out into the world and use, and that’s exactly what the Widow did with Huckleberry. So why not give the Widow’s parenting philosophy a try?

The Experiment

I decided that every day for one week, I'd pick one of the Widow’s qualities and focus on infusing it into my daily parenting. Twain introduces the Widow in Tom Sawyer like this:

...the widow Douglas, fair, smart, and forty, a generous, good-hearted soul and well-to-do, her hill mansion the only palace in the town, and the most hospitable and much the most lavish in the matter of festivities that St. Petersburg could boast…

Am I the only one who wants to be invited to one of her parties, just from reading that line? The introduction gave me the idea to look through the books (she's in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as well) for examples of her parenting.

I picked seven examples to follow, and set to work teaching Henry all about life through her lens.

Day One: Fair

One thing that’s clear in the books is that Huckleberry highly values justice and fairness. He’s ornery and set in his ways of living outdoors and cussing, and sees no problem with it. When the Widow comes into his life to “sivilize” him, he’s not too sure about it. But the Widow is fair and sees value in him – even when he’s not obeying her every wish.

Huckleberry says:

The widow said I was coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory. She said she warn’t ashamed of me.

For me, fairness translated into viewing Henry’s wants, needs, and impulses as no less worthy of respect than mine. It’s easy to steamroll over a toddler when he wants a banana when the apple is already cut up and, “Oh, just eat the apple!” But I realized I wouldn’t do that to my husband or a friend, so why do that to my son?

All day long, I focused on meeting Henry’s actions without immediate judgment. When he wanted to pile all his stuffed animals in the kitchen right when I wanted him to nap, I shrugged off the flash of irritation and helped him when the pile got too tall for him to reach. I set down my preconceived notions and let him direct me, which he was surprisingly adept at doing. The only time I strayed from this mentality was when we were at the park and his impulse was to throw handfuls of wood chips in another kid’s direction.

Sorry, Henry, life just ain’t fair sometimes.

Day Two: Smart

The Widow Douglas is a smart lady. It’s easy to tell that she loves Huckleberry and also sees through all his youthful rationalizations. She matches wits with him and gives him something to think about.

Huckleberry writes:

Pap always said it warn’t no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn’t anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn’t borrow them any more—then he reckoned it wouldn’t be no harm to borrow the others.

On day two of the experiment, I heard the sound of Henry rummaging around in his bedroom. He had apparently just woken up from his nap and gotten into a drawer full of my hair ties and barrettes. He’s never been able to reach the drawer before (damn you, growth spurts!), and as soon as he saw me, he froze and then slowly closed the drawer ... complete with a headband on his head. I asked him what was on his head and he smiled and half-shrugged. I walked over to the drawer and showed that I knew what was going on, and I do believe he thought I was a genius. There’s nothing he can’t have in the drawer (it just makes a mess if he pulls everything out), so later in the day when I heard him back in the bedroom lining up my barrettes on the floor, I didn’t interrupt. Instead, I just kept my eye on him.

It's easy to match smarts with Henry these days, but I know I'll have to keep up with him in the future. When he's in high school and it's drinking (not my headband drawer) he's getting into, I want to be right there to help him get out. I don't want to turn a blind eye. Some choices he'll have to make alone, of course. But would the Widow ignore Huckleberry if she caught him smoking? Not a chance.

Day Three: Forty

Part of what makes me love the Widow is that she is calm. I rarely feel calm. The other night my anxiety got so ramped up that I couldn’t fall asleep. I literally had to wake my husband up to tell me the same thing I was telling myself (and not listening to) before I could drift off to sleep. I’m hoping that part of the reason that the Widow is so calm is that she’s more mature. Maybe my anxiety will taper off after I get through my 20s.

One day, Huckleberry comes home looking like a wreck, and adds:

but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could.

If that had been me, I would've immediately scolded Huckleberry and demanded that he explained what happened and give him some sort of consequence so he wouldn’t do it again. And I would have missed the point completely.

The reason that Huckleberry responds to the Widow is that she doesn’t overreact. She fixes the problem (the ruined clothes) and shows that she isn’t happy. But she doesn’t berate him to the point that he’s distracted by all the scolding. She leaves the focus on the issue. Huck knows he did something wrong, and she lets him feel it.

I tried to be 40 for a day. When Henry pulled my stack of papers off the desk, I didn’t mutter a curse or hurriedly pick up everything and move it out of his reach. I just said, “Please don’t make extra work for me,” and helped him pick up the papers. When Henry slapped a handful of yogurt on his head at lunch, I extinguished my irritation and wiped him up, and then lunch was over.

Later, when he just wouldn’t fall asleep even though he really was tired, I stopped rushing, read him a few books, and soon he was asleep. I realized that if I don’t view every little problem as the end of the world, I’m a lot happier. I’m quick to be irritated, but trying to emulate the Widow was a good exercise. Hopefully by the time I’m 40, this won’t be so difficult.

Day Four: Generous

On day four of the experiment, I didn’t want to think about being generous. I had been up late the night before, my husband had to head into work earlier than usual, and I just wanted to skate through the day. I felt spread so thin that I thought being generous would break me into pieces. But after thinking about it, I admitted that’s not how generosity works … especially when a toddler is involved. So when we finished reading The Mitten by Jan Brett for the third time straight and Henry wanted to read it again, I said yes.

After Huckleberry saves a boat from sinking, he wishes the Widow knew about it. He writes:

I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead beats is the kind the widow and good people takes the most interest in.

The Widow has been endlessly generous to Huckleberry and it rubbed off on him without him even noticing. She isn’t giving to Huck with an ulterior motive. It isn’t a calculated move to make Huck be generous too. She’s just giving and giving, and good things come from it.

I work harder every day, and give more every day, than I ever did before having Henry – and I thought I was a pretty generous person back then. Having a toddler with energy that far outstrips mine is a challenge and a gift. Now that he’s older and plays independently, sometimes I lean on that too much. When he sits down to play, I wash dishes, finish an article, or clean out my inbox. Sometimes, if he really wants something I'll give it to him with a hint of irritation and the hope that it keeps him entertained for a prolonged amount of time. So on the fourth day of the experiment, anything I gave him, I tried to give it freely. I prioritized his time and interests over mine. When he woke up from his nap and I'd gotten everything I needed to do done, I put my laptop away and got down on his level to see what he wanted to do.

Something else I realized: the Widow isn't just generous to Huck; she's generous to her community. This reminded me that even though my life feels busy, I need to make time to give back to my community. It's important to set that example for Henry too, even if it means he has to sacrifice some time with me while I volunteer. I can't expect Henry to learn to be generous if I don't show generosity to people outside my family and friends.

Day Five: Good-Hearted

Kindness is something I’m always working toward. Some moments it comes more easily than others. I hate to fake anything, and I definitely have a case of "resting bitch face," but kindness is so important to me.

In Huckleberry Finn, Twain writes:

The physicians were all at the cave, so the Widow Douglas came and took charge of the patient [Huckleberry]. She said she would do her best by him, because, whether he was good, bad, or indifferent, he was the Lord's, and nothing that was the Lord's was a thing to be neglected.

Looking past the religious verbiage, the message of that quote is that everyone has good in them. Everyone matters, and you need to show that in actions. Isn't that a message we can all agree upon? I know some days I’m a bit grim. When I’m tired, I sometimes find it hard to smile and feel like my laugh is fake.

On day five of the experiment, I focused on seeing the good in Henry and resting in that happiness. It was hard, mainly because every day is hard — and not always for the same reasons. I talked with a friend who's going through a hard time, and then I heard that my husband’s grandma was injured and might not get to visit us. Life is hard. But then I looked at Henry and smiled, and he smiled back. Sometimes finding happiness (even if just for a moment) is that simple.

Day Six: Well-To-Do

So let’s be clear, being well-to-do isn’t a virtue … and thank goodness, because if it was, it is not a virtue I currently possess. But after reading the book, I’m not too worried. In Twain’s world, being well-to-do meant formality, and Huck hated it.

Said Twain:

The widow's servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed, and they bedded him nightly in unsympathetic sheets that had not one little spot or stain which he could press to his heart and know for a friend. He had to eat with a knife and fork; he had to use napkin, cup, and plate; he had to learn his book, he had to go to church; he had to talk so properly that speech was become insipid in his mouth; whithersoever he turned, the bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot.

He hated it so much that he ran away and Tom Sawyer had to go looking for him to convince him to go back. Research is saying more and more that young children need informality and unstructured time in their life. When I got to day 6, I felt pretty good because our daily life is fairly unstructured. We don’t have a rigid schedule, it’s more of a routine or rhythm.

Some day, Henry will have to go to school and get a job and join the structured part life, but he doesn’t have to do that now. An added benefit is that I get to take breaks from my own structured work to explore and play with him. So yes, maybe I "failed" at being well to do, but in the modern sense, I felt like I was succeeding.

Day Seven: Putting It All Together

On the last day of the experiment, I didn’t focus on any one single quality I found in the Widow's parenting. I let them all hang out in my brain and waited to see what would happen. I wasn’t as calm as I was on the Forty day, but I smiled more and was more aware of not jumping to judgment about Henry's choices. I realized that I want the Widow Douglas to be my best friend. OK, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I definitely learned a lot about my own parenting and how I want to parent going into the future.

Did I Learn Anything From Parenting Like The Widow?

The Widow is accepting of who Huck is right now, and at the same time, she helps him mature and make better decisions. Huck is ruled by the passing second, but the Widow is constant – possibly his only constant. Because of this, Huck loves her. He knows he doesn’t do everything she wants, but he knows she loves him anyway. Everything he does (even if it’s questionable, like wanting to become a robber), he does in the hope that it’s something she'll like.

Huckleberry says:

Now, that's something like! Why, it's a million times bullier than pirating. I'll stick to the widder till I rot, Tom; and if I git to be a reg'lar ripper of a robber, and everybody talking 'bout it, I reckon she'll be proud she snaked me in out of the wet.

Henry can’t always be my little boy, he grows up everyday and it’s heartbreaking and perfect at the same time. I didn’t become a parent to have a sidekick, I had a child to help raise someone who'll one day thrive and become a contributing member of society. The values Henry learns while growing up he'll carry around forever, so I want them to be good ones. As he matures, he'll take more and more ownership over those values and apply them to his life. And when he’s off doing cool things, I can read Huckleberry Finn and remember just how much those lessons count.

Images Courtesy of Devin Kate Pope (8)