Last week I watched the old Shirley Temple movie, Heidi, on TV. I hadn’t seen it since I was about 7 years old—the same age Heidi is in the movie. Needless to say, I came away with a very different message this time around.
If you don’t know the story, it’s about an orphan whose abusive aunt took her in when the aunt’s sister and brother-in-law died. The aunt is unmarried and never wanted the child, so after 6 years, she drops the little girl off with Heidi’s grandfather (her father’s father, who is Heidi’s only living blood relative). The anti-social, reclusive old man lives on a mountain in the Alps and has no interest in his granddaughter, or any other human being.
Heidi is so happy to be rid of her aunt, that she makes every effort to please her grandfather, and before the sun sets has charmed him. He becomes her protector, and through his love for her, ultimately rejoins the community. Heidi loves her grandfather and her stark life with him.
Some months later, the aunt returns and kidnaps Heidi in a scheme to sell her to a widowed industrialist in a city 100 miles away. Heidi is to be the companion of the rich man’s crippled daughter. Heidi charms the snooty English butler (played to perfection by Arthur Treacher), who immediately loves her spirit. The crippled Clara likes Heidi too, but her evil governess sees the independent Heidi as trouble, and wants her gone. Heidi encourages Clara to walk, which threatens the governess’ position.
Clara’s father returns home for Christmas, finds out what’s been going on, and fires the governess. Before the governess leaves, she kidnaps Heidi and attempts to sell her to gypsies. Heidi escapes just as her grandfather shows up to claim her and bring her home. The governess tells the police that she is Heidi’s mother, but Heidi tells the police about the rich man, who confirms her story and offers Heidi a life of luxury as Clara’s playmate, but Heidi insists on returning to her grandfather—choosing love over money and servitude.
This could have been the end of the movie, but the last scene shows Clara, her father and butler visiting Heidi and her grandfather at their mountain cabin. What was meant as a feel-good ending struck me as the final nail in the child abuse coffin. Are we supposed to overlook how both Clara and her father used Heidi as a plaything?
This reminds me of the movie, The Toy, wherein department store owner Jackie Gleason hires Richard Pryor to be his young son’s toy for a week. Similarities in theme abound, but race and age differentiate the two movies. Heidi is poor, but she and her captors are white. Pryor plays an adult who, although unemployed and Black has considerably more power than young Heidi. Plus Heidi is a girl—a plus for empowering the fair sex in this 19th century story.
Having been a child (albeit long ago), a parent and now a grandparent, I have dealt with the parent/child power struggle firsthand. Prior to my generation (Baby Boomers), children were little more than indentured servants. If they weren’t working or at least doing chores, their job was to entertain their parents or be seen and not heard.
Although I didn’t need to work to help support my family, I was expected to do chores to earn my meager ($.25) weekly allowance. Fair enough—I understand that my parents were attempting to teach me how to take care of myself, be responsible and develop a work ethic.
One school holiday when I was seven, my father took me with him to work. While I was waiting for him to give me something to do, I put my hands in my pants pockets. This brought on a lecture on how I should never do that, because everything I do in this life is a reflection on my father; if my hands are in my pockets, that announces to the world that my dad is a lazy good-for-nothing. First of all, his assumption was patently false, and worse than that—what an awful burden to put on a seven year old boy!
So, as I grew up, I kept a catalog of things my parents said and did that I swore I would never do to my kids. Mostly, it was their absence. My dad traveled half the year and almost never attended any of my school plays and concerts. I spent my childhood begging him to do things with me.
As a parent, I spent almost every day with my kids and went to all their little league games and practices, ballet classes and recitals, and would beg them to go the park and have a catch. We shared music, movies, TV shows and books. I read to them every night until they were able to read for themselves.
I guess my parents’ mistakes taught me to be more of the parent I would have liked to have. Hopefully, my children benefited. I’m happy to say they both turned out well. My son doesn’t have children, but my daughter has three and is a fantastic mom. For me there are two essentials that parents must teach their kids. Everything else is gravy:
- Demonstrate love. Children learn to love by being loved. Love involves respect for oneself and others. We get respect by giving it.
- Teach your kids to be independent and self-sufficient.
Going back to my childhood in the 1950s, unless it was raining, my mom would tell me to go outside and be back in time for dinner. Our front door was unlocked all day (my parents did lock it when they went to sleep). No one ever heard of a play date. If you wanted to play with other kids, you either went to their house or met them outside on the street. My mother didn’t worry about us being kidnapped or run over by a car (she taught us to stay away from moving cars and not to get into a car with a stranger). We kids were independent right from the start.
Things changed starting in the ’60s. Local TV news shows started focusing on local crime and scaring parents. Their kids were no more likely to be kidnapped than I was, but the anecdotal accounts on TV and the tabloids fed into a rising fear. Fear of crime, fear of disease and finally, fear of the other (anyone who doesn’t look like you, pray like you, or speak like you).
We see the cumulative result of all that fear today. I pray that we don’t go into a depression or world war, because unlike my parents’ Greatest Generation, today’s Americans are too fat, selfish, and scared to survive either of those challenges.
Every few years we Americans become aware of a social injustice and attempt to correct it. I’ve lived through McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights. It appears to me that there is initial resistance, which is overcome and then followed by backlash—two steps forward and one step back. Ultimately we creep forward a little bit each generation. At least that is how our history has been up to now.
I’ve lived long enough to see a few patterns play out and feel fortunate to be alive now when many of the injustices of our past have been eliminated or greatly diminished. We are at a crossroads now. The fear that has crept over our nation is threatening to destroy our democracy and to undo the measures that were put in place to protect the less powerful among us. We must be vigilant and insist on the code I learned as a child from Superman: truth, justice and the American way.