Brothers Grimm: The Willful Child.

I misunderstood this one at first, until my wife pointed me in the right direction.  The Willful Child:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful and would not do what her mother wished. For this reason, God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill. No doctor could do her any good, and in a short time the child lay on her deathbed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her little arm came out again and reached upward. And when they had pushed it back in the ground and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave and strike the arm with a rod. When she had done that, the arm was drawn in, and at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

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16 Responses to Brothers Grimm: The Willful Child.

  1. JD says:

    And the moral is: beat your child correctly the first time (?)
    Monday morning cheer!

    uh…thanks, I guess.

  2. Are we to understand that while the child lived, the mother had never disciplined her?
    That when the mother went to the grave and finally, at long last, forced the child to comply with what was expected, she obeyed?

    If that is the case, the unspoken message is that had the mother instilled discipline from an early age, the child might not have provoked God’s displeasure with her constant rebellion and might have lived.

    I have never heard this tale before and am only speculating. Feel free to offer the correct interpretation if I am totally off base.

  3. dalrock says:

    @Terry
    That when the mother went to the grave and finally, at long last, forced the child to comply with what was expected, she obeyed?

    Yes, I would say you nailed it. The child could have no rest even in death until the mother finally imposed discipline.

    And you are also right that had the mother imposed discipline at the right time, the tragedy would have been averted.

    I originally read this as a warning to children. But the moral is aimed at the parents, specifically at mothers it would seem.

  4. dalrock says:

    @JD
    Monday morning cheer!

    Good thing I held off on the sad post.

  5. OneSTDV says:

    That’s a little too morbid for my taste.

  6. sdaedalus says:

    In the German text, the term “das Kind” is used, so that the story could equally apply to a boy or a girl child.

    I’m not a huge fan of killing a child, even an unruly one, to teach its parents a lesson.

  7. dalrock says:

    Good point sdaedalus. I found versions of the story with boy or girl children, along with a translators note explaining that the sex of the child wasn’t specified in the original.

    As for killing a child metaphorically speaking, this one really does pack a punch. My guess is the assumption was that the parents who most needed to learn the lesson would be the most resistant to it. That seems about right to me based on personal experience. At the same time, I would find a more realistic story more troubling. The child instead could grow more and more out of control and eventually winds up with any number of awful and realistic options. This I would find harder to shake off after the initial shovel to the gut wore off. She could end up getting raped and freebasing cocaine, to make up a totally hypothetical example.

  8. Anonymous age 68 says:

    The problem is, if a parent does properly discipline a child, even without physical discipline, they are risking having their kids taken away by an ‘expert’ who believes a child is supposed to be allowed to explore, barf.

  9. by_the_sword says:

    I think the moral is:

    Be good and respect your parents or they won’t want you any more.

    Of course since “God had no pleasure in her”, she might have become a vampire. Better then to drive a stake through the heart of that restless, blood-drinking, corpse than have it run amok.

  10. J says:

    Reminds me of a cartoon I once saw in which the parents of a misbehaving child say to some other adults, “We don’t discipline him; we are waiting for society to do it for us.” The sad thing is that when society, or fate or simpley the natural course of events catches up to the child, it’s always much harsher than the parent would have been.

    I gave my younger son a rare smack on butt once in a public parking lot after pulling him out of the way of an oncoming car (driven ironically by a woman with a German accent; she not not have ever read the Grimm brothers). She got out of her car to tell me the near miss was her fault, not my son’s, and to lecture me on not hitting. I calmly explained that I couldn’t teach a child to avoid pain if he doesn’t know what pain is and that I needed to teach him to watch out for people who, while eager to run their mouths, were not particulary consciencious about watching out for him. And a smack was far less painful than being run over.

    However, I can count the number of times that I’ve hit my kids on one hand. It was always over running into traffic or putting little hands on the hot stove. Otherwise, I’ve really found that having high expectations and teaching by example have worked the best. For example, I was once asked by someone who was impressed with their manners, if I drilled my kids on saying please and thank you. I realized that not only hadn’t I drilled them, but I’d never ever prompted or instructed them. I had just always said please and thank you to them. They picked it up on their own because it was part of the environment.

  11. Thag Jones says:

    I like the Brothers Grimm. Obviously it’s a metaphor – what it’s saying is that without proper discipline, the child becomes separated from God (is in darkness) and ends up in real trouble. The death isn’t necessarily literal, although it can be, because of the trouble that can come due to the separation from God. This could be the case whether or not the passage about God’s displeasure was present (as the wikipedia entry you linked says that was added later – perhaps to make it more clear that this was the subject matter).

    Like you said, the story could instead have had her spiralling out of control and ending up smoking crack, but that wouldn’t have the same impact and would be much more lurid in a way. The way it’s done here is as stark a statement as could be made about the importance of discipline – which doesn’t necessarily mean “corporeal punishment,” as it seems to be interchanged with by many people, but “showing the way.” All other roads lead to death, either literal or figurative or, if you believe in an afterlife, the torment of Hell (no peace – hence the arm coming out of the grave).

    It says so much with so little, doesn’t it?

  12. Pingback: What blogs on the left have to do with sheep conventions. | Dalrock

  13. Sebastian says:

    The story should have the child’s father, who was a soldier or sailor and rarely home, coming to the grave to swat the hand at the mother’s request. Almost without exception the inadequate or inappropriate discipline I have seen dished out has come from women.

  14. Joe Sheehy says:

    Comment of a young Iranian woman on discipline:

    “It was my father’s justification for punishment and ” it is good to hurt sometimes”:
    If you don’t punish a child for misbehavior he will continue doing things in a wrong way and afterward the society will punish him.
    It is better to be hit by your own parents than be rejected or punished by a bigger society. It is better to be hit for your laziness and bad grades at school than suffer unemployment and poverty as an adult.
    I remember that as a child I had difficulty learning to use fork and spoon and it caused them to belittle me and remind me of how bad I was. Well, if you never learn to use fork the whole society will humiliate you. So my parents chose between bad and worse. “

  15. Anonymous says:

    This story is indeed very disturbing. A willful child is a very big challenge for the parent. It is also a challenge for the kid, indeed, they cannot rest (In the story, even after the child dies) until they find out an answer to their questions. But also, a parent is never at peace when dealing with a willful child. Even after you let go and let them meet their consecuences (the child sick and then dead) it will weigh heavy on the parent (the mother strikes the arm, she is ultimately responsible for the final death, and she will live with that knowledge, knowing she was the final strike)

    I was a compliant child all my life. My sister was the willful one. My mother beat us both, but did not teach us real discipline. I figured it out eventually on my own, but my sister is still struggling, after all these years. The key to discipline is not physical force. It is consistency above all. Yes, consistecy must start very early on. But discipline must include both adecuate / logical consecuences for punishable behavior and positive reinforcement of good behavior. For children that are short on the good behavior list, you must get to know the child, help them discover what makes them tick, what motivates them. It’s a true labor of love and patience.
    As far as the consecuences for punishable behavior, some children get it after one or two consecuences, the most willful children will test it many more times, trying to figure out all the angles of a situation, and this will test most of all the consistency of the parent. The parent must persevere above the willful child. It is a labor of love and patience.

  16. I never got this.
    Yes I understand the moral: Beating your children is good for them, and I know that in those days they didn’t think it was wrong- but the actual story is bizzare.
    For future reference, if your kid dies and you bury them and then their arm starts reaching up through the ground- don’t beat the arm back down with a stick.
    DIG THEM UP, THEY ARE STILL ALIVE.

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