Understood Betsy is one of those books. Those books are the ones that help to form and inform your life in some serious way. In my case, Betsy has informed both my parenting and my homeschooling, which is a bit odd, now that I think about it: there’re no parents and definitely no homeschooling in it at all! What is central to the book, though, is self-knowledge and strength: that is, the strength of character that self-knowledge brings with it. It is a very dated novel, to be sure; it is highly moralizing, and the author constantly intrudes upon the story, just to be completely sure you’re not missing the point she’s making. But in spite of these flaws, or perhaps, strangely, even because of them, it has been for me an effective philosophical treatise on the goals of child-rearing.
The first and central truth Betsy teaches is the vital place of unconditional love in the soul of a child. Betsy is first loved unconditionally by her Putney cousins, for though Aunt Frances, her first primary caregiver, loves her, it is as an extension of herself, not as the separate and whole person that is Betsy. It is from the deep, strong, solid but unspoken love of Ann, Abigail, and Henry that Betsy draws her strength. This is the parental love I’ve striven to give to my own children, and to share with my students. I believe in them, and as I do, they’ve not disappointed me.
My believing in my children and in my students is manifested in the fact that I see them and, consequently, treat them as real people. By this I mean that I try not to talk down to them, and that I try to engage them as much as I can on an equal footing, just as Abigail and Henry do when they teach Betsy how to make butter. They teach her by showing her how it is done, and then by letting her do it herself, because they believe that she is capable of it. I never assume that something is beyond them, and they, like Betsy, rise to meet the challenge.
In contrast to Abigail and Henry’s sensible and loving attitude, Aunt Frances has always tried to prevent Betsy from doing anything for herself, preferring instead to cultivate in her the permanent feeling of fearful helplessness which mirrors Frances’ own experience of the world. She is the ultimate in helicopter parenting: nothing, from food to dreams, from school to music, is Betsy allowed to experience unmediated. In Frances we are shown what Betsy herself would have become if she had never met her Putney cousins and the freedom they share with her.
Betsy is able to receive this freedom from her new family because they get out of the way, out of the way of her learning and experiencing the world on its, and her, own terms. This is something for which I reach in my parenting and in my homeschooling. When I get out of the way, I give my five year-old the space to investigate how shadows work by lying in the sun, moving a Playmobil figure into different attitudes; I give my teenagers the space to explore and develop their relationship with God and toward faith. Home education is at least as much about what is not said as what is.
The deepest lesson I’ve learned from Understood Betsy, though, has to do with self-reliance. From Cousin Ann, Betsy has learned the great lesson of how to face trouble straight on. She saved Molly from the Wolf Pit, because she was able to think critically, and rely on her own judgment. She was able to get herself and Molly home from the fair when they’d been left behind because she used what modern educators like to call problem solving skills and creativity, and relied on herself. Finally, she has learned to rely on herself in that most complex and hard-to-navigate strait–human relationships–when she saves herself and Aunt Frances from the struggle that would have been their reunited lives, and she does so with kindness and love. This development and use of one’s own good judgment is what I pray for and work toward with my own children. It is the final and most important lesson that Betsy shares with us.
In my view, self-reliance is what makes us homeschoolers, and good ones. Homeschooling is being “in no grade at all!” all the time, but as we travel down our paths toward the goal of well-educated children, we, like Betsy, come to see that the names of grades, levels, styles, and curricula don’t matter. What does matter is the progress we have made and continue to make toward the goal, relying on our children, ourselves, and their and our own good sense. We can–in fact, we should, we must!–learn from our foremothers, and from our fellow travelers. But in the end, we all must “walk that lonesome valley…nobody else can walk it for [us], [we] got to walk it [for ourselves].” For though the valley can sometimes be lonesome, it is ours, and we should walk through it smiling and confident.