Don't Insult Your Children, Give Them Jane Austen
My kids saw that scoundrel Willoughby at Chic-Fil-A last night.
Or so they thought.
We had just finished our chicken sandwiches and waffle fries and were headed off to Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concert, but all four kids stopped dead in their tracks when they saw the unsuspecting dark-haired, large-eyed teenage boy behind the counter. I could read their body language; if this was indeed Willoughby, as they frantically whispered in my ear, he would surely do something reprehensible at any moment. And they weren’t going to miss it.
Much to their chagrin, we ushered them out the door, and the Willoughby look-a-like was left to finish his work without further danger of besiegement.
In their overactive 10-, 8-, 7-, and 3-year-old minds, they had seen a villain behind the counter. The details of this poor boy’s true identity are of no consequence. The more important reality is that Jane Austen had captured their hearts and imaginations, and my children have not yet entered adolescence.
This surely qualifies as a parental milestone.
Now, I know the purists contend that the consumption of the screen portrayal should never precede the consumption of the written. I don’t hold to that particular standard (but undoubtedly have my own purist standards in other areas). As such, when we began the several-hour long 2008 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility, my kids were immediately enthralled and the questions came with great rapidity.
With my finger perpetually on the pause button in order to field the inquiries, I responded to these (and more) from both my daughters and my son:
How could John Dashwood be so weak? And Fanny be so evil?
Why don’t Elinor and Edward marry each other?
Why exactly is Marianne so foolish?
What does Elinor mean when she says she doesn’t disapprove of Marianne, but only her conduct?
Why doesn’t Willoughby act like a gentleman?
Colonel Brandon is the hero; right? Why can’t Marianne see that?
Why is Lucy Steele engaged to Edward when Edward is clearly meant for Elinor and Lucy seems so sneaky and unkind?
How can Mrs. Ferrars be so utterly vicious and yet everyone is falling down to worship her?
Can we please, please, live in a cottage by the seaside and string up seashells in the garden?
Other than the last one (which breaks my heart to say probably not), I delighted in pausing the visually stunning jewel to help my young children frame the story, discern wisdom from folly, and mourn over the broken hearts of Colonel Brandon and Elinor.
The sumptuous period dress, the breathtaking landscape, the awe-inspiring country manors, and the rapid-fire colloquy amongst some of Austen’s most remarkable characters were exactly the type of feast my kids deserved. Not a culinary feast, mind you; but a literary, moral, and visual one.
Why settle for one-dimensional twaddle that insults the Imago Dei status of your children, when you can bring them before the work of a master craftsman from another era?
No, my children did not understand every aspect of the witty repartee. Nor could they grasp the magnitude of the moral and social norms under Miss Austen’s microscope. But every morning, I read my children the Bible, and they also read it for themselves. We require this in our family, even while knowing that they cannot possibly understand the depth of the riches contained therein. But their current ages and developmental limitations should not preclude them from partaking in the banquet table in whatever ways they are able.
In the same way, when I first began reading Austen’s works 16 years ago, in a Brit Lit college course, I am quite certain I appreciated only a minuscule percentage of what Austen was doing. Two years later, I spent a semester researching and writing an honors thesis on the French Revolution’s impact on Austen’s body of work. Clearly, I was smitten with her literature and desired to dig deeper. And yet, every time I revisit Emma or Pride and Prejudice, I surely continue to miss nuances and connections, all these years later. But I keep savoring the feast, both by book and by screen – and it is altogether better to do so alongside the inquiring, hungry minds of my children.
Note: I recommend, without reservation, this series of 12 audio lectures by Professor Jerram Barrs of the Francis Schaeffer Institute on the life and works of Jane Austen. The series is free for download, after a quick registration process, courtesy of Covenant Seminary.
Parental disclaimer: Because my children are so young, I skipped the (brief) opening scene of the 2008 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility, and instead gave a brief synopsis to my children of an immoral man victimizing a young girl.
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