I recently read a rather extraordinary paragraph about the modern problem of raising children in Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. What is extraordinary about it firstly is that it mentions roles for women, including household tasks and motherhood, and roles for men. This is fine with me, but I was surprised to read it in modern fiction, because it would seem we are now all supposed to at least pretend the world doesn’t work this way (this portion of the book is actually set in the 1930s, though written in the late 80s, which could perhaps account for the unusual portrayal of this perspective). It then makes an interesting point about how the changing activities of fathers affects the raising of boys (in reality, many of today’s small boys probably see their father walk out the front door in the morning and have no idea what he does), and what this means for the models provided by women (though it does say that girls can still imitate their mothers, which might no longer be such a decided case either, as their mothers might be walking out the door in the morning also).
Aunt Emily in Crossing to Safety likes to gather stray children on the front verandah of their summer holiday home and read them Hiawatha, by Longfellow, and this is what is written of this endeavour:
In primitive cultures, Aunt Emily will tell anyone with whom she discusses the rearing of children, the young learn by imitating their parents. Girls learn household tasks and the feminine role, including motherhood, by playing house and looking after their younger brothers and sisters. Boys follow their fathers to field and forge, and ape their ways with tools and weapons. Both boys and girls may be instructed in the proprieties of symbolic occasions by medicine men, shamans, and specially delegated elders, just as in our society they are sent to school and set to read books. But in our society (she means Cambridge), men (she means men of education and culture) no longer work with tools or use weapons. Girls can still imitate their mothers, but a man-child finds little in his father’s activities that he can make games of. Women must therefore provide models for both girls and boys, and steer them into paths they might not find for themselves, and above all encourage them in the strenuous use of their minds. Precisely what Nokomis did for her orphaned grandson Hiawatha.