The Immense Pressure on Children to Behave as Tiny Adults

When I re-read a beloved series of books from my childhood, I saw all too clearly how society limits kids’ creativity and originality.

An illustration of three kids playing with long ropes around their waists
Ping Zhu

This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.

So much of raising children is unimaginable until it happens, an abstract future materialized awkwardly into an actual child covered in dirt. Amid constant unpredictability, one small unsung comfort for parents is the chance to revisit books from childhood, to share with your own children the stories you knew and loved.

Recently I came across my old copies of Betty MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, a series about magic cures for children’s foibles that amazed me as a child. But when I read them to my own children, I was stunned to discover that these silly books are actually horror stories—though for reasons no child could ever comprehend.

The books, children’s best sellers from the 1950s that my mother passed to me in the 1980s, are seemingly anodyne stories about the improbably named Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a childless woman who serves as an unlicensed psychopharmacologist to her suburban neighborhood’s Baby Boomer kids. You see, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle possesses a treasure chest of medicines to treat children’s bad habits—and unlike Ritalin, these cures involve bad trips.

When little Melody Foxglove’s mother complains that Melody cries too much, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle prescribes “Crybaby Tonic,” which makes Melody produce enough tears that she nearly drowns. Jody Jones, who skips school to build his tree house, is treated with “Ignorance Tonic,” which makes him forget how to count and read. Whenever Wendy Hamilton tattles, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s “Tattletale Pills” cause a dark-tailed cloud to emerge from her mouth.

Even more haunting are Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s therapeutic cures. When Hubert Prentiss refuses to pick up his toys, he is abandoned to this vice until his mess traps him in his room, forcing him to take his meals through a window off a garden rake. More unfortunate is Patsy Waters, whose refusal to take baths leads Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to prescribe the “Radish Cure”: Poor Patsy goes unwashed for so long that her parents plant radish seeds in her dirt-encrusted face while she sleeps, so that plants sprout overnight. That story alone was curative enough to make me raise my parents’ water bill for months.

If this sounds like gothic horror, well, it is. But unlike the unalloyed sadism of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which children are tortured and maimed for sins like overeating or chewing gum (while touring a candy factory), Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s “cures” are meant to be admired, even emulated. “Isn’t it a shame that children can’t be evened up?” she asks one distraught parent rhetorically. “Some are show-offs and some are shy and some are quiet and some are noisy … But children are wonderful and I love them all.” Parents agree, especially since her rather aggressive “love” evens up their children perfectly. As one relieved mother swoons, “There goes the most wonderful person in the whole world.”

As a child I found these books fascinating, suggesting as they did a conspiracy of adults manipulating children’s every move. Now, as a mother of four, I find them even more fascinating, because it turns out that the conspiracy is real. Parents do constantly conspire with a bevy of licensed and unlicensed advisors—relatives, friends, doctors, teachers, social-media strangers, even representatives of the state. What all these people promise is what Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle provides: conformity. It’s something so unnatural that it can only happen through magic, and yet it’s what’s expected of children, then and now.

Much of this conformity is just common courtesy; no one wants to live in a world in which people don’t pick up their toys. But the conformity parents sometimes crave goes deeper than that, and the desperation of these books’ 1950s parents hasn’t gone away. My 21st-century children laugh at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s picket-fenced planet, where Mrs. Brown does the mending while Mr. Brown smokes his pipe, and little Christopher Brown putting his elbows on the table incurs an intervention involving a trained pig (don’t ask). But the reality is that today, amid a middle-class panic about their families’ and their country’s future, there is intense demand for children’s conformity. It can be hard to see just how much conformity is required until you have a child—or two, or four—who simply won’t comply.

For large numbers of children, for instance, sitting in a cinderblock box for six hours a day is an awful way to learn. But it’s hard to appreciate just how awful it is until your child gets expelled from preschool for being unable to remain in the room. You don’t think about how many questions your children ask when you read together until they get kicked out of the library story hour; you don’t realize how eagerly they explore nature until the arboretum ejects them for failing to stay in line on the trail. When your children achieve good grades, you are delighted, until you sit through the presentations where every child recites an identical list of facts about the country they “researched” on Wikipedia, and you realize what success is. You wonder why their assignments are so uninspired, until your answer arrives in the form of paperwork about multiday standardized tests. You wonder why your child who reads five novels weekly has been flagged for poor reading skills, until you discover that said child spends all assessment time reading under the desk.

You appreciate the need for children to develop patience, mastery, tolerance for boredom. But demand piles upon demand until it becomes a kind of daily war, as if this structure were specifically designed to destroy the very things that it purports to nourish. Your children soon meet other repeat offenders who frequent the principals’ and psychologists’ offices, children who sit on exercise balls and wear weighted vests in class to better constrain them, like characters from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” dystopia. You observe as your children uncover, like video-game Easter eggs, your state’s various statutes that trigger ejection from class; soon even your kindergartner discovers that all he needs to do to leave the room is announce an urge to kill himself, a fact he then exploits at will. You don’t blame the schools for these essential interventions, but you can hardly blame your child either for wanting out, because clearly something is wrong. Your children love learning, reading, exploring, creating; at home they write books, invent board games, make up languages, build gadgets out of old coffee makers. They appear to have the makings of successful adults—they’re resourceful, independent, and interested in contributing something to the world. But the markers of success in children are in many ways the opposite of these markers of success in adulthood, and in the meantime—a long, decade-plus meantime—children are trapped in a kind of juvenile detention where success is defined by how well adults can manage them, the chief adult being you, the parent.

Through all this, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles proliferate. Some are relatives or trusted friends; others are professionals, teachers, therapists, doctors, all offering their chests of cures. Some of these cures actually work. But even when they work, you begin to wonder what it means for them to work, to wonder what you are not seeing when all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles see is a tattletale or a truant or a child covered in dirt, an aberration to be evened out, fixed, cured. This harrowing question brings you to the farthest edge of your own limitations as a parent, which is also the nearest edge of your child’s freedom. And then you understand that control is a delusion—that all you can do is what Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle never does, which is to love the people your children actually are, instead of the people you want them to be.

Parents’ desire for conformity in their children comes from something much deeper and more impossible than getting them to do their homework. We, parents, want our children to be us; at some unconscious level, we produced them to replace us. But thinking beyond ourselves requires an active imagination—and imagination, with all its frightening risks, is exactly what parents are unconsciously trying to suppress, in our children and in ourselves.

Today, when I read these books to my children, I try something I never could have done as a child: I imagine Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s uncured young Baby Boomers as adults, and appreciate how much we needed them. I imagine Melody Foxglove’s ready tears inspiring her to join the Freedom Riders or to protest the Vietnam War, while tree-house-building truant Jody Jones tunes in, drops out, reads Silent Spring, and designs new sustainable homes for the future. I see unwashed Patsy Waters digging wells in the Peace Corps, lifting people out of poverty; I picture toy-obsessed Hubert Prentiss inventing robots and cellphones; I imagine tattletale Wendy Hamilton as a fearless prosecutor, taking down child molesters and organized crime. Christopher Brown, after half a century of perfect table manners, lets his grandchildren put their feet up on his table, laughing with them about his parents’ limitations. And then I look around at my own children, hoping someday they will laugh at my limitations too.