Readers of Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men will instantly see where Ann Applebaum is going with her witty and perceptive column today on the antics of that scamp Tom Sawyer.
Applebaum describes some of Tom’s misbehavior-the famous scene where Tom licks a newcomer with a “a citified air,” Tom’s fibs, skipping school and other things that, as we fondly recall, drove poor Aunt Polly crazy. Tom turned out fine, but a boy like Tom today would be in big trouble:
In previous eras, such behavior was just as problematic for adults as it is today. Poor old Aunt Polly — how many times does she “fall to crying and wringing her hands”? To cope with Tom, she seeks names for his disorder — he is “full of the Old Scratch,” meaning the devil — and searches for ways to control him (“Spare the rod and spile the child,” she tells herself).
But if the behavior or actions of the children and the parents are familiar, the society surrounding them is not. Tom Sawyer turns out fine in the end. In 19th-century Missouri, there were still many opportunities for impulsive kids who were bored and fidgety in school: The very qualities that made him so tiresome — curiosity, hyperactivity, recklessness — are precisely the ones that get him the girl, win him the treasure and make him a hero. Even Huck Finn is all right at the end of his story. Although he never learns to tolerate “sivilization,” he knows he can head out to “Indian territory,” to the empty West, where even the loose rules of Missouri life won’t have to be followed.
Nothing like that is available to children who don’t fit in today. Instead of striking out into the wilderness like Huck Finn, they get sent to psychologists and prescribed medication — if they are lucky enough to have parents who can afford that sort of thing. Every effort will rightly be made to help them pay attention, listen to the teacher, stop picking fights in the playground. Nowadays, there aren’t any other options.
Applebaum speaks of children in general, but I can’t help thinking that this applies more to boys, who are more likely to be immature and fidgety.