Old-fashioned children in old-fashioned households used to have to listen to a book called, Goops and How To Be Them. The Goops were squat, balloon-headed, bald children of no particular age who were possessed of all the bad habits we were never supposed to acquire, or if we had, we needed to get rid of them quickly.
One verse read,
They spill their broth on the tablecloth; Oh, they lead untidy lives.
Bringing to mind the solitary occupant of the White House eating his solitary dinner.
Since we all spilled our broth on the table cloth more than once, we felt some sorrowful kinship with the balloon-headed miscreants.
Still, the Goops were sort of funny, not half as terrifying as the punishments that were visited upon the bad girls and boys in another classic, still in print, Struwwelpeter, the German children’s classic written in 1845 by Henirich Hoffman to read to his three year old at bedtime.
Horrible punishments are gleefully handed out in this book for a variety of childish misdeeds. A boy who sucks his thumb has his fingers cut off, a girl who plays with matches is burned up in a fire.
I’ve been thinking of these children’s books while reading today’s news. Many of the actions described could have been carried out by Goops or even resulted in the terrible punishments doled out in Struwwelpeter.
Lying might well incur having one’s tongue cut out…
Boasting about legal actions—such as challenging the role of the judiciary in “declining” to reinstate an illegal and unethical travel ban—might have resulted, for a Goop, in being detained in the stocks.
The vulgarity and inappropriateness of being told on Fox News by a White House advisor to “go out and buy” clothes marketed by a President’s relative might receive more than “counseling” if practiced by one of the girls in Struwwelpeter—something more akin to being boiled in oil.
No parent today would dream of reading these horrible tales to a child, and even the relatively mild punishments the Goops suffered are intolerable, now.
But as we have moved, or tried to move, in the last fifty years beyond the cruelties of an old-fashioned aristocracy, almost entirely male (although powerful African-American mothers had their reasons for teaching their children harsh lessons before they were taught them by the even harsher white world), what have we lost?
Shame. The shame that crippled generations of children but also acted, brutally, to control outrageous public behavior (it certainly continued in private).
We dismantled that terrible old system, and rightly. But how much of the behavior we are witnessing now “on high”—so to speak—would be impossible for Goop-trained and Struwwelpeter threatened children?
Grown into adults with unimaginable power, would three A.M fears of tongue-and-finger-loss modify their behavior?
[For more on Struwwelpeter, read “The best scenes from the most demented German children’s book ever published.” or download the eBook on Project Gutenberg.]