I Took Parenting Lessons From 'Hamilton' & This Is What Happened
If you live to be 1,000, you might be able to get tickets to see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's wildly popular hip-hop Broadway musical about, of all things, the life of the guy on the $10 bill: Revolutionary War hero and U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. It sounds like a crazy idea for a musical, but it's absolutely wonderful.
As a child, Alexander Hamilton was an impoverished orphan in the Caribbean, but with tenacity, ingenuity, and luck, he managed to rise to become George Washington's right-hand man, a Revolutionary War hero, lawyer, and America's first Treasury Secretary. He was born to a single mother in the British West Indies and orphaned at a young age, but went on to study at King's College — which became Columbia University — then became General Washington's aide during the Revolutionary War. As the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Hamilton created the First National Bank and has been called the "Father of the American National Banking System." Then his amazing career was cut short when he died tragically at a relatively young age in a duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr.
Hamilton sets Alexander Hamilton's story to a hip-hop soundtrack, and people are going completely nuts for it. Tickets to the Broadway play are virtually impossible to get right now, and the album is one of the best-selling albums on iTunes because the story is inspiring, the music is fantastic, and the entire cast is phenomenal. The fact that everyone is obsessed with Hamilton right now means that we might have a long wait to get tickets, but an inability to actually see the show doesn't seem to make people love it any less.
Hamilton is a great soundtrack to share with the kids, after a parent goes through it first to vet the more explicit tracks for appropriateness of language, and Hamilton himself is the kind of brilliant, motivated self-starter we'd all like to encourage our children to be. So with that in mind, I thought there might be some parenting lessons to take from Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant, hardworking self-starter, and he pretty much had to be because as an orphan growing up in poverty; he had no real support system or safety net to buoy him along. That made him independent, but it makes me a little nervous, because as a mom I tend to helicopter parent. I am protective and neurotic. Toddlers are so very small, and the world is so big and scary and full of things they could run into, or fall off of, or shove in their mouths. But I also want to encourage my daughter to be independent and full of her own drive and ambition, like Alexander Hamilton, and I’m a little concerned that all my literal and figurative hand-holding might not be ultimately beneficial for her.
So I decided that for seven days I would take my parenting cues from Hamilton and see if maybe I could fight my inclination to coddle and let my baby interact with the world on her own a bit.
According to the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” when Hamilton was 10, his father left, and then when he was 12 his mother died of a terrible fever. He moved in with a cousin, but then that cousin committed suicide, and Hamilton was left to fend for himself. Somehow he managed to rise up from poverty and squalor and become the guy on the $10 bill.
My baby’s background could not be more different — she has two very attentive parents and all the toys and books she could want — but I would like to encourage her to be an independent striver like Hamilton, even if I’m not willing to die of diphtheria to make it happen.
This week her father left the country for a work conference, so I was the only one looking out for her for the duration of this experiment, and at first I wasn’t sure where to begin. At 14, Hamilton was put in charge of a trading charter. That seemed like a bit much for a toddler, but I did find a big toy boat in a sandbox for her to play on, so I stuck her on that.
Normally I would stand right next to her while she played on the boat and hold her hands while she went up and down the stairs, but this time I remembered I was supposed to be channeling Hamilton, so instead of standing six inches away and saying, “Be careful! Be careful, sweetie! Be careful!” with every breath, I just backed off to the edge of the sandbox and watched from there.
She was fine. For a moment she seemed unsure of how to get down the stairs by herself, but then she figured it out, and from then on went up and down fearlessly. It was a little nerve-wracking for a nervous parent like me to watch, but even I could realize that figuring out how to get up and down by herself is an important life skill, and she seemed very pleased with herself for having done so. Hamilton parenting was already a good idea.
Hamilton’s astounding success was largely due to his skill when it came to writing. At one point in the play, Thomas Jefferson says of Hamilton, “As long as he can hold a pen, he’s a threat,” which is probably the greatest compliment a person can receive from a rival.
According to the lyrics of "Alexander Hamilton," Hamilton was a voracious reader noted for “scamming for every book he can get his hands on” and “reading every treatise on the shelf.” Hamilton the musical is based on an 832-page biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow. That book is a critically acclaimed bestseller, but it is also 832 pages, and I have not yet read it. I have, however, read the Alexander Hamilton page on Wikipedia, which says that as a child, Hamilton almost lost his family's library of books when his mother died, but a family friend bought them and gave them back to him. Scarcity makes things more valuable, and having to scrounge for books may have made Hamilton appreciate them more.
My very privileged toddler daughter has never had to scrounge for a book in her life. She has dozens of them, all arranged at toddler height on the shelves so she can get them whenever she wants. But there is one book that is scarce to her, because I hid it.
I feel deeply guilty about having hidden one of my child’s books, but last month I broke down and hid it while she was asleep because if I had to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar in German one more time I was going to cry. I don’t speak German, even though we live in Germany, and for months on end my daughter demanded I read Der Kleine Raupe Nimmersatt over and over again with no break in sight. My husband speaks German very well, but the baby only wants this book read by me. In my less charitable moments, I suspected that she was doing it just because she liked hearing my inability to pronounce the word “Nimmersatt,” which means, “to be insatiable.”
After I hid it, she did not seem to notice the book’s absence, and she had no interest in reading the identical version she has in English. But as soon as I brought it back she cried, “Nimmersatt!” and it shot right to the top of her most-requested list again.
I’ve now read it over 150 times. I still can’t pronounce “Nimmersatt.” Oh well. If this helps foster a lifelong obsession with literature, it will be worth it.
Alexander Hamilton is pretty impressive. In fact the entire cast of Hamilton is amazing, but for me the best thing about Hamilton is the Schuyler sisters. Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler — played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones — are three devastatingly intelligent society women reimagined as a Destiny’s Child-esque girl group. They dance, they rap, and they harmonize beautifully.
I am gratified to see that "The Schuyler Sisters" appears to be the baby’s favorite song from Hamilton. She bounces and twirls along to it, and after a couple run-throughs she appears to have learned the chorus parts. Angela sings:
“Work!” the baby shouts, snapping one hand over her head just like Peggy and Eliza.
I am very pleased with this development. It’s adorable to watch, and a person who wants their daughter to grow up to be a clever, independent, empowered woman —as I do, of course — couldn’t ask for a better role model than Angelica Schuyler.
Four days into the Hamilton experiment, and my baby seemed to be enjoying being allowed to run around the playground and investigate the “big kid” equipment all by herself. Added bonus is that she'd only eaten one handful of sand (that I know of). It’s going well, but on day four I realized I also wanted to teach her about poise and presence — and also because it was raining terribly and I didn't want to go outside — so on this particular day, I introduced her to “You’ll Be Back,” a retro-sounding love ballad in the first act of Hamilton sung to America by Jonathan Groff as King George III. It’s wonderful, and Groff is brilliant at it. In fact, he’s so good at gliding across the stage that Beyoncé herself saw him perform and told him she was going to steal his King George walk.
If Beyoncé wants the King-George walk, then I want it too. So I cued up the track and attempted to glide back and forth across my living room with a book balanced on my head in an attempt to demonstrate to the baby that we should always stand up straight and walk so tall that it would impress Beyoncé.
I was just trying to demonstrate the idea of “standing up straight,” but then the baby picked up a book of her own and started walking back and forth with it held on top of her head. It was way cute and I took a break to send a video of it to all her grandparents.
I was convinced that I was nailing this whole Hamilton parenting thing, but then she started insisting on wearing a two toy crowns at all times and calling herself and all her toys, “Queen.” By her hand I am also required to wear a towering pink 18-century wig in the house, and my inability to wear the wig and walk with a book on my head at the same time appears to displease my daughter immensely.
Has my King George lesson left my baby obsessed with hereditary status and the subjugation of the masses? Probably.
My concerns about raising a mini-royalist appeared to be unfounded, because on day five I set her down at the playground, and she ran right over to another toddler in the sandbox, threw her arms over her head, and sang, “Rise up!” at him, echoing Hamilton's call to arms in "My Shot." Then it turned out the other toddler was a little French boy. I didn’t catch his name, but in my head I call him Mini-Lafayette, after Hamilton's friend and Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette.
I kept an eye on her and Mini-Lafayette, but I made it a point of giving her a wider berth. I still followed her around and watch her, but I followed from about 10 to 15 feet, not one or two as I would have previously. That extra space seemed to give her more opportunity to explore, and she didn't reach out for assistance as often as she might have otherwise. She fell down on her butt in the sand a couple times, but she seemed to think that’s fun.
When I held out a hand to steady her on the stairs, she took it automatically. But when I didn't offer it, she figured out the stair on her own. Maybe she took the stairs like a grown-up, or maybe she went backwards, or maybe she just sat and scooted till she reached the ground. Either way, my daughter had realized that when she's faced with a problem, she's got to try to solve it herself. And I began to realize that offering a hand to steady her was more about calming my own nerves than hers.
Days 6 and 7
Independence and poise and a love of books are all great attributes, but if there is one single parenting lesson to be taken from Hamilton, it is this: No duels. Dueling is part of Hamilton from Act I, but Hamilton's willingness to ritually shoot at another man over an insult is one character trait I do not want to pass on to my baby. At 49 years old, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel just three years after his son was killed the same way, and one can only imagine what those two would have been able to accomplish if they hadn't died so young. Dueling did not work out well for the Hamiltons, and if there's one parenting lesson to take from Hamilton, it's that dueling is never the answer.
I want to encourage my daughter to be assertive and stand up for herself, but there’s a world of difference between being a people-pleasing pushover — which is a problem I have — and dueling for one's honor, which is one area where Hamilton is not a good role model. When one’s child shows up and says they are going to duel, the proper response is not a lesson in honorable dueling, the proper response is: “No, you’re not f*cking dueling, what is wrong with you? You’re grounded.”
This nearly came to a head this week at the park when some 10- or 12-year-old boys took my toddler’s ball and started playing soccer with it. I don’t think they realized it was her ball, and they had a full game going on. I didn’t want to interrupt the soccer game when she wanted it back, but I also didn’t want her to think that she had to give up her toy just because the big boys had taken it. So when she went after the ball, I prepared my “stern adult” face and got ready to scold the boys and tell them they had to give the ball back.
It turns out that wasn’t necessary. As soon as the baby reached for the ball, the boy holding it handed it politely back. They knew it was her ball all along and were just playing with it while she wasn’t using it.
For me, that was a valuable lesson in playground-ball etiquette. Apparently an unattended ball is free to be played with, but must be given back if the original owner wants it. That makes sense to me, and I was very relieved at not having to use my “stern adult” face. It still does not feel natural to me.
Did Hamilton-Inspired Parenting Work?
At the conclusion of this experiment, I realized that my toddler is a lot more fearless than I am, both with obstacles and other kids. Over the past week I've learned I’ve been following her too closely whenever we leave the house, and that it isn’t necessary for me to loom over her at every moment. I can still be present and watchful from a few feet away. That way she knows I’m watching her and will help her if she needs it, but it also gives her room to explore and solve problems for herself.
At this stage of her life those problems might be, “How do I get down from this very small step?” but someday she’ll have bigger problems to address. I want her to (figuratively) cut her teeth on the small challenges, so hopefully she’ll be more confident when the bigger ones show up.
And seriously, no duels.