Katie brought home from her school library The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter. A few months ago we had read The Tale of Peter Rabbit in a collection we own, so she was familiar with the author's work and characters. We hadn't gotten to the story of Peter's cousin, Benjamin, though.
We sat together and I read it to her the first time. She loved the story until we got to this part:
When old Mr. Bunny had driven the cat into the greenhouse, he locked the door. Then he came back to the basket and took out his son Benjamin by the ears, and whipped him with the little switch.
Image source: The Project Gutenberg ebook
Katie stopped me. "What's 'whipped' mean?"
"To hit someone," I explained.
"What's a switch?" She asked.
I pointed to it in the drawing, "It's that twig Mr. Bunny is using to whip Benjamin," I said.
"Why is Mr. Bunny whipping Benjamin?"
I took a deep breath and exhaled. When I made a conscious decision to not use corporal punishment with my child, long before she was ever born, long before I ever married, or was even Will's acquaintance, I never thought about how I would be excluding my child from a huge part of our culture. My child has the right to know about things I don't agree with. Fortunately, I have classic works of children's literature to raise my undisciplined child above her ignorance and into the light of our society's rod-unspared, unspoiled children. Awareness of a subject, however, doesn't guarantee understanding, so Katie wouldn't let me continue reading the story until I answered all her questions.
I began, "Well, this story is very old--"
"How old?" Katie interruped.
"Over one-hundred years old." I paused long enough for Katie to finish gasping. She has been fascinated with the concept of time lately. To someone just six-years-old herself with a new awareness of time, one hundred years is eons.
"And back then, people thought when children make mistakes they should be punished so they learn not to make those same mistakes again."
Wow, am I really that much of a hippie dippy mom that my kid not only knows no punishment she knows not the word?
"You know, like when someone makes a mistake, and you make them do something they don't want to do--"
"Like go to jail?"
"Well, yeah, if they've commited a crime. But that's pretty extreme. A punishment could be something minor like having to stand at the wall at recess--"
"Losing a cube," Katie corrected me with the proper public school jargon.
"Yeah, when you lose a cube at school that's a form of punishment," I agreed. "So Benjamin's daddy wanted to teach Benjamin a lesson about not stealing vegetables from the garden, so he thought whipping him would make the bunny remember not to do it again. But it's not a very effective way to teach someone a lesson. It just teaches someone to fear whoever is whipping them--"
"Yeah. I bet Benjamin fears old Mr. Bunny!"
"Yeah, but I bet Benjamin still sneaks off to the garden when his daddy isn't looking. So it just teaches him to be sneaky with his daddy instead of teaching him why he shouldn't be in the garden."
"I hate this book!" Katie pounded her fists into her thighs.
"Oh," I closed the book and set it in my lap. "Do you want me to stop reading it?" I asked.
"No, no! Keep reading it!" Katie insisted.
"Oh? You hate this book but you like it too? I know exactly what you mean. Those are always the best stories."
I continued reading. We got to the part where old Mr. Bunny takes the onions and leaves the garden. So...uh. What kind of lesson is this daddy teaching his bunny? Man I'm glad times have changed. But it sure is fun to read about the odd ways of the olden days.