The New Domesticity: Words of Wisdom
“Act smart and be respectful!” It started as a joke. My sister and I adored the 1985 “Anne of Green Gables” miniseries and committed many favorite lines to memory. One of the more memorable was the snippy dictum issued by Mrs. Blewett to Anne Shirley, who selfishly wished to adopt the spunky orphan (and thereby acquire a cheap nanny): “Act smart and be respectful!”
The line stuck and eventually became a perfect phrase to toss around when we had our own kids. They’d head out to play with friends, hang out with cousins, or stay with grandparents, and our last words of wisdom were issued with the mock severity of Mrs. Blewett: “Act smart and be respectful!” The kids always laughed as we winked and kissed them on their way.
Over 30 years later, the line is now firmly embedded in our family vocabulary. I still deliver the succinct command, calling after my kids as they grab the car keys and pull out of the driveway. Funny thing, I think the words have actually made an impact. My kids know I’m teasing with the Blewitt-esque delivery; but they know I’m not teasing about the underlying life message: “I love you. Make wise choices. Respect others.”
Over a century ago, children often picked up life messages from their elders through classroom readers and sampler work. One such book, the 1879 “McGuffey Reader,” contained “slate work” for the child to copy, such as:
Beautiful hands are they that do
Deeds that are noble, good and true
Throughout the nineteenth century, young girls worked “samplers,” beautifully designed needlework that often included a motto, floral design, and the child’s name, age, and date. One such sampler, dated 1806, was worked by 12-year-old Nancy, who must have spent hours stitching,
Labour for learning before thou art old
For learning is better than silver or gold
Silver and gold will vanish away
But learning is a jewel that will never decay
These days we don’t usually toss a needle and thread to our kids when imparting words of wisdom. But we do have a way of tossing our words. For good or for ill, the words we speak (or don’t speak) have a lasting impact on the hearts and minds of our children.
In anticipation of Father’s Day, I put out a Facebook request to my friends, asking them to share pithy words of wisdom—from the humorous to the heartwarming—given by their fathers. The response was overwhelming. Many of the fathers represented in my friends’ contributions either lived through or had parents who lived through the Great Depression.
Accordingly, many phrases focused on building a strong family work ethic, from “You don’t work, you don’t eat,” to “Many hands make light work.”
As I read each comment, I marveled at the power of a father to speak in three directions to his child: he speaks to the past, to the present, and to the future.