B: Okay. Today we are talking about Matilda. There are so many things to unpack in this one that I’m really excited to dive in. But I wanted to start with this quote from the beginning of the book. If you’re not familiar—I’m sure everyone’s familiar with Matilda, hopefully—she’s just this really fantastically smart little girl who’s very self-motivated to teach herself and to continue to grow, regardless of what’s happening around her, and regardless of how she is or isn’t being nurtured. And so she does. She reads and she absorbs and she learns. And one of the early things that they say about her is:
“Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world, like ships on the sea. Those books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message. You are not alone.”
A: That’s good. Good stuff.
B: Just a big deep breath. And that message is one that I think we need even as adults. But for kids…
A: I agree. The thing that I love the most about Matilda is that [the story’s] so exaggerated. Everything about is just, you know, just typical Dahl, right? So it’s like a comedy/tragedy, which is a great point of view to come from for this particular character because she is just like almost relentlessly thirsty for knowledge and optimistic.
She’s like a candle that you can pour buckets on, and it just won’t go out.
Which is amazing. So I think the way that he chooses to tell the story, like that particular tone, is great for her, right? The tragedy that happens [to her] is like … if you were realistic about it…
Because obviously some people are raised in really horrible environments, right? And how do you talk about that without it being depressing? So Matilda’s tragedy is almost comical, which makes it approachable, which is pretty cool.
B: And we see that’s kind of like the Harry Potter take on it.
A: Right, the boy who has to live under the stairs!
B: I was always kind of horrified with that. Like I feel like we’re taking this real lightly, right? Living in a cupboard!
A: Eating pocket lint sandwiches…no big deal…
B: It’s comedic; whatever. But because it’s stories to kids who are, you know, either they’re completely unfamiliar with that and you don’t really want to traumatize all of your readers necessarily, or they are familiar with it and you need to give them some kind of levity—levity and a way out of it. And like that “you are not alone” feeling. That’s a hard line to walk as an author. Not that Roald Dahl did it amazingly.
A: Not that he’s the shining standard for children’s fiction or anything.
B: That is a hard line to walk, and it’s fraught with difficulty.
A: I’ve heard many adults who love Matilda, like it was really close to their heart as children because if they did grow up in a tougher environment as a kid, you hear the ring of truth in it, you know what I mean? You’re like, “Yeah, oh my God. I identify with her” and it’s not dragging yourself all the way back to the dungeon to re-live it. It’s funny enough that you can go back and say, “Yeah, it was hard.”
B: And that’s how we see Matilda coping with it too. She very early on figures out: “I can find some entertainment,” and she even says it. She frames it as:
She has to entertain herself or she’s gonna lose her mind.
A: Oh my God. Yeah. Because she has this incredible exploratory personality, and she’s stuck in this family. Like—let’s just pretend that there’s a listener who hasn’t read Matilda—she’s in a family that completely doesn’t support her curiosity, intellectually or otherwise, and they basically park her in front of the television say, “Shut up and watch a television.” That’s her life.
So she’s so bored, and she’s so physically limited up until a certain age. She can’t actually get herself out of the house to get herself new material to feed her thirsty little brain. So she—well, do you want to go into the librarian part of it? That’s a good segue into that.
Letting Our Thinking Girls Pace Themselves
B: So, she’s left by herself all day. Which….blah. So, she’s four, she teaches herself how to read, on just things that she finds around the house, because there are no books in the house.
A: Literally reading the labels on the cereal.
B: Been there. And not that we didn’t have books, but there’s a type of personality that is just hungry for everything that you can get, all of the information you can get.
A: It’s hard to satiate that.
B: Yeah, it’s, you can’t. So she’s not in a nurturing environment for that. But she is that kind of person, and so she discovers that she can go to the library while she’s left at home all day and reads everything. And I love that. I love her honesty when the librarian takes notice of her (which is good because, holy cow, unaccompanied small child right at the library)…
A: Which, again, is kind of a book exaggeration, but sometimes it’s not so much of an exaggeration…
B: …But I love the librarian, and we’ll circle back. There’s so much to talk about the librarian, and I wish she had been a bigger influence in Matilda’s life.
A: I think librarians are heroes.
B: They are! So she goes to the library and I love that when the librarian takes notice of her, she’s like, you know, first she’s incredulous that [Matilda] could even read. But then when she realizes that Matilda read all of the books in the children’s section, she just was like, “What’d you think of them?”
And [Matilda’s] like, “Some of them are pretty dull.”
A: Yeah, they’re pretty bad. [laughter] “See Spot run!”
B: Uh-huh. I definitely have a daughter who we actually had to do Harry Potter audiobook with. She just couldn’t. She could not handle child-books.
A: Her little brain was melting and trickling out her ears. She had to read one more freaking…
B: It took us weeks to get through green eggs and ham, the first time she read a book by herself.
A: That’s so frustrating.
B: She was so frustrated the whole time we were reading it, and she would complain and be like, “Mommy, this story is not good. This is so boring.” And we got to the end and she was so disappointed. She was like, “If he had just told him that it was food coloring…”
A: [laughter] That’s beautiful.
B: And um, I, I’m not gonna lie. That’s a little bit how I felt about the ending of Matilda.
A: “Get it together, Sam I Am…”
B: Yeah, sometimes books are just disappointing. And Matilda was that girl who was like, “Can we just have, like, a good book? That wasn’t great.”
A: She was ready for something bigger. Okay. If we could just pause right there for a second. That is a common problem. Like I started reading at pretty young age. Like I was reading fluently at I guess maybe four and a half or five. So, an early reader. I just happened to have a brain that’s really good with like pattern recognition, right? And my oldest daughter is the same way; she taught herself to read when she was right before her fifth birthday.
I really honestly didn’t do that much to teach her. She just is extremely good at advanced pattern recognition. But I have a couple of others who have dyslexia. So like, that’s not fair because they also have a mind that really wants something more “difficult.” [post recording note: And it’s so frustrating for kids with learning challenges to get stuck with beginner books arbitrarily, just because the mechanics of page-reading happens to be difficult for them!]
And that can be really a tough thing to find! Or [in Matilda’s case] people decide that when you’re six, you should be interested in this. So all the books for six-year-olds (well, not all of them, but a lot of the books for six-year-olds) when you go into the library, are the little chapter books with fairies and princesses and stuff that’s kind of like… Some people are interested in it, and some people just want something different, or more, and that could be really frustrating to me.
B: Yeah, and that continues to like all of the different genre separations. There’s an assumption that these are the interests and things you care about. So in our house, we’ve been really intentional about being open with books. If you’re interested in something (obviously we’re not going to traumatize them; some amount of limiting that happens), but for the most part, I’m like, “Why don’t you take a half a chapter at a time and check in with me, and tell me what you’re thinking about it, and how you’re feeling, and if you’re confused.” Yes, absolutely. And just stay really close.
A: Yeah, keep an open dialogue!
B: I just have to say there’s no way that I can keep up with all my four children and read books before them. [laughter]
A: No, no, but if you have a child like this..!
I don’t know if it’s true for everybody, but in my house, it’s been true that usually the kids who were precocious readers also want to talk a lot about it. It’s actually been great for building rapport! Number one, it’s better than listening to Minecraft talk. Not that you should never do that, [laughter] but it’s a little bit less painful.
B: I had the same thought. So I’m there with you. Nobody likes Minecraft talk [laughter].
A: But it’s so good if you can talk through [what they’re reading]! Like, I forget who said this, so maybe someone who’s listening can remember.
Once your child reaches the age of 10 or 11 years old, they already basically know what you think about everything.
And they don’t care what you think about anything after that point. At that point, you’re shifting more to an active listening position.
A: So, if your child is an early reader and you’re able to get material in their hands that is thought-provoking, or that asks the big questions or maybe the difficult questions, and encircles the dif difficult subjects, it’s this rare window where you can actually say, “Well, here’s what I think about that. What do you think about that?” And you actually have a chance to kind of influence that a little bit, which is huge.
Not that Maltida has that! Poor Matilda, she didn’t have anybody to talk to.
B: She did for a while with the librarian! I’m so sad that we lost her as the story progressed because the librarian was really great about helping [Matilda] think through it. “What did you think about it?” And [Matilda] had opinions about Ernest Hemingway, and she had thoughts about all of these things! And too often, and you see with the rest of Matilda’s interactions with the adults in her life, she’s not given credit for her thoughts. It’s assumed that she’s just being snarky, or that she’s being a problem, or she’s trying to embarrass them, and there’s so much adult ego.
Let Them Enjoy Their Own Childhood
A: Like she’s trying to unseat their authority somehow by knowing; that should ever be a threat to an adult’s ego, right? A child who knows things.
B: And she was a young talker too.
Two of my kids didn’t talk quite so young, and then two of my others did (incidentally, my girls). the youngest two. And the insight that you can get when a toddler can form a sentence is so bizarre! [laughter]
A: It’s a little unnerving sometimes!
B: Because they still have their immature thought processes, but they can speak them! Two things that have happened are: One, I’ve gained empathy for the children around me, because I could see that thought process that happens. My three-year-old the other day just got really frustrated in this situation, and she started crying and said, “It’s so hard to be the littlest.” And I’m like, oh, that, that is what just happened. I would have never ever made that connection. I would have been like, “Oh, you’re tired”, or whatever. I would have never connected that. So there’s a lot of empathy that happens with that.
But then the other part that happens, which you see with Matilda, is you assume that they’re older. You forget how old they actually are.
God, you start assigning things to them. Like they assign a lot of intent to her, the way that she’s doing things. And she’s just a very small child. And that’s a really difficult thing when you have a precocious talker.
A: Yes! And sometimes a child can have insight into one thing, but that does not mean that they’re able to apply that logic across the board. They’re not necessarily emotionally mature enough to apply that logic to themselves. They’re trying it on like a suit, and they’re seeing what you think about it, and they’re throwing it out there to see how you respond to it. It’s like test-iteration. Little children really are social scientists, right? So I think sometimes when adults come across children who look like they carry themselves with some poise, and they talk like adults, and they have big vocabularies.
It’s very easy to assign adult intent to children’s actions and judge them harshly based on that.
And I think sometimes, unfortunately… I’ve listened to more than one parent slide into a peer relationship with their child who looks and talks like an adult. And to some extent, it’s really good to like say, “Well, you know, what do you think about that?”
But also, to maintain that sense of, “I’m going to be the one who holds myself to a higher emotional standard. I’m going to be the one who holds myself to a higher behavioral standard so that when you do something that I view as a betrayal, I’m not going to come unglued on you, and judge you harshly.” Instead of holding you to an adult standard when you really have no idea what you’re doing yet. And that’s okay. Like, yeah, leave some grace there for the precocious-mouthed children.
B: Gonna to hang onto that one.
So that was the frustrating thing, to me, with Matilda. I wanted to see the librarian continue to develop her, because she went with Matilda’s pace and she checked in with her and she didn’t hold [Matilda] back, but she also didn’t push her forward.
A: She didn’t treat her like a performing monkey. “Oh, look at this new novel thing.” She was respectful.
B: Right! Then as soon as she wound up with the other positive in her life, her teacher. Ms. Honey, there was some support there. She was not a negative influence directly. She was very kind. But she also got a little bit wrapped up in her excitement about Matilda, and that created expectations that weren’t necessary to put on her.
So instead of going with Matilda’s pace, Ms. Honey spends a whole class immediately getting her to perform. (There’s a lot of things that happen there that can be discussed, but maybe don’t even need to be) because the point is, then Ms. Honey was giving Matilda advanced books, and then she was leaning on her for things, and she was pushing her. And there’s an age where pushing is appropriate, and there’s an age when it’s not; there are circumstances where it’s appropriate and there are circumstances where it’s not.
And we see this a lot in literature, and I think that’s because literature reflects reality: when you have the precocious child, especially the girl and you’re not expecting that from them for whatever reasons you have, you put them up on this pedestal and create these expectations around them that they don’t need to have on them. So, I wanted to see more of the librarian is the influence. And that’s kind of what I’m holding in my head as the influence I want to be in my kids’ lives.
A: Absolutely. Yeah. The part of myself that relates most strongly to Matilda is that I also never had to be told to be curious about things or to be really assertive about taking knowledge in for myself. I paced myself really well. This is true also about the speed at which I was able to get things done. I could do things really quickly.
And I think that sometimes people “suffer” from seeing a child who self-motivated and intrinsically driven, and assuming that they’re like all other children in that they’re not “giving it their all.” And sort of like, “Oh, look what you could do if you applied yourself.” As if a little girl who’s five years old and reading like Kipling (I don’t remember everything that she read), as if that’s not a kid who’s just putting the pedal to the metal as much as she can!
She’s internally driving herself as hard as she can. That’s who she is.
She couldn’t stop herself if she wanted to. But if somebody else comes into her life and says, “Wow, look at what you’ve gotten done now! Just imagine what you could do if you went for four hours!”, not realizing that some people work in short, brilliant bursts and they’re already applying themselves as much as they can. So I think that the potential for burnout for people with Matilda personalities is pretty huge. And on into adulthood, because you now have your boss who’s seeing you accomplish this huge amount of work in a short period of time. Right? And saying, “Oh, look what you could do if you just did this.”
And you’re like, no, that was me being me. Like, that’s, that’s it. I’m already pushing myself to capacity, right? I’m not actually underachieving much here. I’m actually trying as hard as I can.
I think that’s a problem that a lot of Matilda-type people run into, you know, because well-meaning Ms. Honeys come into their life and they’re like, “Oh my God!!” They started drumming their fingers together and they’re like, “Oh, the plans I have for you!”
And Matilda’s like, “I already have a set of plans for myself and I’m doing them.”
I like the Ms. Honey vs. Librarian contrast that you’re bringing out, because it really clearly brings into sharp relief this one person who’s allowing Matilda to pace herself because she understands already she’s a little girl who’s in charge of herself. She’s already driving her bus at top speed. And the other person’s like, “Oh, I’m going to shape you and mold you instead of respecting your space and saying, ‘Oh, you probably have a good gauge on your energy. You’re probably doing as much as you can right now.'”
B: Which is probably a good point to make, the clarification that teachers especially do kind of have the role of being able to push and drive, and there is a place for that. I realize that she was not necessarily outside of her lane and outside of her responsibilities, but we did get to see a lot of window into her in her thinking process.
A: And it was very difficult for her to dial back her excitement as finding that one in a million child because, because I think whether we like to admit it or not, when we feel like we have a kid who’s really a bright star in our care, a little part of us, especially for people who are nurturers or natural teachers, sees that as our own opportunity to make our mark in the world, through the child. You know, like “this is my big chance as a teacher, this is the one in a million that’s going to be my star pupil” or whatever. And we forget to let the person have their own ownership.
When you have someone who is self-driven, I think people don’t know what to do with that, because the vast majority of the world is like, well I’m here, tell me what to do. Give me my set of instructions.
People who are internally driven, they don’t require a set of instructions. They’re already doing it. So the challenge there is like taking your hands off and kind of just like guiding them gently maybe away from the deadly chemicals and the chemistry set before they knew what they are.
Competition, False Humility, and Story Tropes
B: So, there’s the expectations that the characters in the book have of Matilda. And then the other thing that really struck me was the expectations that the author had of this character.
A: Ohhhh. Yeah. And it’s so transparent.
B: It’s so clear. So, she comes to school. She knows all of these things already, and Ms. Honey first wants to know who taught her those things, because of course we have to attribute it to an adult in her sphere. But then the second thing is, she has to tell Matilda that she’s smart. First, she assumes that everyone around her knows that she’s smart, but then she has to tell Matilda that she smart and it’s almost glorified that Matilda doesn’t know that she’s smart.
But here’s the catch to that.
A: How is a kid like Matilda not gonna know she’s smart??
B: Because Matilda isn’t interested in competing. Because the smart that they want [her] to know—the author, ms dot honey—they all want to see Matilda knowing that she’s better in this way. Than the other children around her.
A: [sigh] “You’re different than the other kids. You’re not like those other children. You’re the chosen one.” You gotta have a Chosen One. What’s the book without a Chosen One?
B: Right? There always has to be one. And there’s so many layers there that I feel like come from, um, the imperfections of the author, which all of us as authors are going to have. But there’s the idea, first of all, that a child like that would want to compete and should want to compete. It’s like that trope that says you don’t know you’re beautiful; you don’t know you’re smart.
Let me teach you. Let me tell you. And that’s valued.
A: Oh God. It burns.
And it’s put up on a pedestal, as the virtue that balances out and justifies your being smart: you have to be ultra humble.
A: Or ignorant somehow. It doesn’t make sense that an incredibly intuitive and intelligent person would not put two and two together that maybe they’re a little bit more gifted in a specific area than other people. It’s false humility! Like, and why is that glorified? Why is that so important to people?
B: And Matilda knows, though. The thing is that she knows she’s smarter than her parents. She knows she’s smarter. So she’s comparing herself to the people who willfully…
A: Well, and she’s more curious and ambitious in general, right?
B: She knows she has something that [her parents] don’t have. So her comparison is not in competition with other people who are pursuing knowledge and other people who are trying to better themselves.
A: And why pit a kid against another kid?? Like she’s not already been isolated enough. Right? Like “let’s just make it harder for her to connect with her peers”?!
B: But she does know that she wants something that the adults in her life don’t want, and she knows that there’s a difference there. And I think that is true of any of our thinking-type children who are more in their heads and tend to be more about thinking instead of body things and physical coordination and social awareness. Like kids who are more in their heads, they can see through your facade and they’re not interested in your perceived authority based on age or based on your position. They just want to know that you’re being authentic with them and you’re pursuing wisdom with them.
A: Right? “Will you be honest with me? Will you be loyal to me?” Those are very egalitarian questions. They don’t demand that you… There’s nothing there that says, “Will you be as good at this as me? Will you be as smart as me? Can you stay ahead of me?” Those are not the questions that the kids like that are asking … for love. Right?
They’re just asking, “Will you be honest? If you don’t know something, will you tell me? Are you going to lie to me?” Because that would be the worst thing. To withhold information or to lie.
That would be the worst thing, right?
B: Yeah, and it is for [Matilda]. So she has in her home, she’s completely cut off from information except for what she pursues. And in a really terrible moment, her dad gets basically jealous of the book that she’s reading because it’s attention to her instead of what he told her to pay attention to.
So he takes the book.
A: (And he doesn’t even want her attention to himself! He’s just worried that she thinks she’s better than him or…)
B: Exactly, because competitive, because the assumption is: we will compete with each other based on whatever intrinsic…
A: …and she’s just being interested in what’s holding her attention; she’s not trying to be better than anybody.
The Walls We Build
B: He takes the book from her and he rips the pages out. And it’s not her book. And she’s trying to tell him, “you would enjoy this book;” she gives him a recommendation. “You would love this story!” And he takes it and rips the pages out, and it’s so heartbreaking. But that drew a line in the sand between her and her parents.
So this is where I’m really … I, I love the potential of Matilda as a character. (I’m probably breaking a ton of people’s hearts here.) But I’m the Matilda who will be like, “Eh, I didn’t really like that book.”
I did love so much about it. There’s a lot of truth in it. What I wanted to see more of in her is that she was portrayed as really like docile and you know, really: “I’m quietly submissive,” and she just did her work, and she just did her things.
A: If a little passive aggressive at home [laughs]
B: But that’s when the line was drawn. She needed to keep herself safe, so she’s not overtly doing things, but she has to entertain herself in this world that’s cut off. She drew a line in the sand where she knew there was no going back. There’s no way I’m going to have the relationship that I need with my parents. And this is still a small child, and there are a lot of things that are exaggerated and unrealistic in this book and in most books of this genre, but I don’t think that’s wrong.
I think that we have a lot of young children who, even if they can’t verbalize it, they know when that well of relationship has been cut off, and they can sense it.
A: “I love you. I love you to this point. This is how far. This is the capacity of how I’m able to support you.”
Because if you have you have parents that are broken in some way, or they’ve been coping with their own trauma in some way—it doesn’t even have to be like a single event, trauma could just be the trauma of having grown up in poverty or growing up with neglect. Right? But if people don’t choose to grow past that and say, “well, I’ve outgrown this coping mechanism and it’s no longer helpful for me”—if they don’t have the ability to deal with it, then their love for you will always be shaped by their own coping mechanism. That’s just true. It’s not a comfortable truth. But I mean, if you’re an objective thinker, you realize at a pretty young age, “Yeah, if I cross this line there, they’re…they will choose this thing over me.”
They’ll choose the television over me or they’ll choose their belief over me or their drinking problem over me.
B: So her first alternative to that world was books. And when her dad takes the book and she sees that that world is now also going to be limited, she decides to take things into her own hands a little bit. And experiments with what she can do to the world around her. And this is the Matilda that we see when she gets really excited when she has her powers, and the Matilda we see experimenting and pranking basically nonstop, just messing with her family.
A: It’s me.
B: They won’t just let her be free!
A: She starts punking the world, basically. Because when you have that kind of an active mind, if it becomes root-bound, you get weird. So you start messing with the world around you and hoping for some new information to come through it. Right? Like if you take away my books, okay…I’ll glue your hat to your head. We’ll see what happens when that happens. Let’s try that out.
My own experience growing up was not as bad as Matildas. I had parents who were in a lot of ways supportive people, and they were pretty happy to see me like grow and explore, but they had some beliefs that caused them to greatly limit the certain kinds of information that it could have in my life.
I was probably like 18 or 19 years old before I had a legitimate science textbook in front of me that I didn’t go and seek out for myself. Um, which is kind of a weird specific background, but it is what it is, right? It is what happened. And then when I was a kid, I remember, I was at home. I was not in public school when I was very young, and I had limited information, and I was just bored.
I was just so bored.
I started doing things like talking 12 kids at a birthday party into climbing into to refrigerator box. And I rolled it down the hill with all of them inside, and they came out bloody and crying. And I was like, “Well, that’s what happens when you push 12 kids in a refrigerator box down the hill! Onto the next thing!”
And then I would talk people into like licking the electric dog wires on their fences to see what happen, you know, because I just needed to know; I gots to know about the world. I think that thread is very alive in Matilda. She’s just like, “Well now I’m gonna eff with you.” And I think that you can see that like even in a family that’s been supportive, if you let that kid get bored and you don’t stay on top of keeping enough information in front of them.
They start messing with stuff, and they seem like they don’t have a conscience.
That’s their brain trying to get new and real information.
If they’re starting arguments with people a lot, if they’re being pedantic or trying to find loopholes in the boundaries that you set for them, or if they’re trying to game the system somehow: they are so bored out of their little skulls. They’re trying to do the very best they can to not upset people around them so badly that they don’t love them anymore.
Well, okay. It’s a similar idea to “everyone needs love and affection.” Right? If you had like a really sensitive kid and affection was their love language (we’ll just call it that because I think most people are familiar with the concept): if you deny that kid hugs and affection, they would wither and die.
That’s pretty true for information-oriented children. If you don’t give them enough information, they will dig a 12 ft hole that hole in your backyard (which is something that I also did). They will do something to figure out new information. They will test-iterate in the world. So I think that even if you’re a home that is, like, super supportive, if you can just make a priority for the child who’s messin’ with ya to keep new, interesting information in front of them, it will probably get so much better.
They’ll stop gluing your hat to your head.
B: Yeah. And even though she was really verbal child, I think in her case, obviously, she didn’t feel safe. But you’re not always going to get that verbalization from them for them to say, “I’m bored. Give me new information.” You have to kind of sleuth it out and see what’s happening and listen really closely to who they are and honor who they are, and give them what they need, not what you think that you would want in that situation.
A: In most kids, a good way to tell that you’re dealing with a Matilda kid is: if you say, “okay, I’ll take you to the bookstore” or “I’ll take you the library” or “I’ll let you do that project, but you’re gonna have to earn the money to do it.”
B: [laughs] I farm out all of the horrible house tasks.
A: Barring some kind of like emotional or cognitive development issue, they will probably move heaven and earth to make that happen. They will put the work in to make it happen.
B: My baseboards are currently shiny because mine wanted something.
A: My oldest daughter doesn’t so much care about lots of shoes. (She’s a teenager.) She doesn’t so much care about extra clothes. But she will hustle for a book. Like, oh my God. Yeah. And it’s always been that way. Yeah. So there’s that. But that is such a multilayered tool, because you’re teaching like personal autonomy and the ability to like once, once they get it in their head “I can walk to the library,” they will take that proverbial wagon and walk to the library every single day.
Retaining Our Own Emotional Responsibility
B: So the second half of Matilda. Oh boy. Uh, I have some feelings and some thoughts.
A: I would love to hear your feelings and your thoughts.
B: Um, so the thing about this is, it’s a recurring trope that we’ve seen throughout history. We see it in literature everywhere. And, I mean, it’s a message that for whatever reason seems to have stuck.
What I would love to see for Matilda is that she is trusted and supported and an adult in her life sticks up for her and gives her a bubble and gives her some safety.
B: Instead, the opposite happened.
A: Of course. Because once we’ve adultified her, why not keep adultifying her, right? She looks like an adult. She talks like an adult. So why shouldn’t she save the adults?
B: So we see some oversharing from Ms. Honey.
This is what’s interesting about this book: we’re not the exaggerated parents, but we can still cut off things from our children. We can still be like, “This is our family time. You should just enjoy it.”
A: “You will enjoy birdwatching at Audubon with us for four hours.” And if the rest of the family loves it, that kid feels super out of sync. Yes.
B: So there’s a lot of ways that we can do the things that, you know, her really exaggerated, terrible, horrible parents did. And the well-meaning teachers, and the ridiculous Trunchbulls.
Whether [Ms. Honey] was well-intentioned or not, she overshared and she used Matilda.
A: Yeah, she did. She almost used her as a counselor. She let her child be her therapist
B: And I remember so many occasions like that in my life where there were conversations with adults that um, you know, were over my head. I didn’t need to know. And that happened a lot, I think, in church spheres because we were um, when you grew up kind of fundie, it was “testimonies.”
B: Still oversharing. Not that we don’t need to be open with the children around us, but you don’t necessarily need to blanket drop your traumatic experiences from childhood and put that on the shoulders of someone else.
So Ms Honey does that. Um, and I remember there being those conversations, and then they always come with expectations as well. Because if [you, an adult] are feeling comfortable enough to be blabbing your life and you’re also gonna throw that, you know, “You should know better here. You should have done better. You know that you have this power here, you should use it more wisely” or whatever. And there’s always expectations that come with that.
When we’re in that position of power (which is what it ultimately is when you’re an adult and child), if we’re sharing something like that and if we’re opening up, it should be for the benefit of the child. Right? Right.
A: It should be the, to the end of … [preventing] “Please provide me with emotional support. Please tell me what you would do.”
Unfortunately, it’s like a siren song if you’re that child.
It feels so good to be valued for insight, it feels so good to know that somebody trusts you to tell them the truth; like, those are the things that you live for, right? It’s like your personal brand of smack. So when an adult comes to you and they start saying these things to you, you feel flattered. It feels good to know that you’re valued that way. And at the same time, you can’t emotionally process an adult coming to you with their problems. And who’s going to be there for you? Then are you going to go to that adult that you’ve helped and acted as their therapist? I keep on thinking of Manny’s character from Modern Family.
He’s constantly acting as like the family therapist, right?
But that’s an overwhelming position to be in as a child, especially if you already believe that there aren’t any adults in your life who can handle you, who can help you. You already feel responsible for the world, you’re responsible for yourself. Well, now we’re going to be responsible for the well-being of adults around us as well. You know?
It’s such a tough line because you don’t want to be pontificating at your child all the time and you don’t want to be like, well, (what is one of the lines from Matilda?): “I’m big and you’re small. I’m smart. You’re dumb!” Like you don’t want to be that. But at the same time, on the other un-useful and unhelpful side of the spectrum, is: “I’m going to tell you all my problems and expect you to fix them for me because I can’t possibly help myself.” Right? So neither of those are useful.
I think sometimes that Ms. Honey is supposed to be set up as the foil for Trunchbull, but I think they’re both useless.
B: They just kind of cancel each other out.
A: People are going to hate me for saying Ms. Honey is useless, but I mean, come on now.
B: I miss the librarian. Can we just go with the librarian? Can she live at the library? That’s how that should have gone, no private school, no Trunchbull, we’re good.
Modeling Emotional Competence
A: What if she said “Ms. Honey, what will you do about that?” And Ms. Dot honey showed [Matilda] the example of standing up to your own fears and taking responsibility for your own problems and not being rescued. And maybe little Matilda would grow up not feeling like all the women around her need to be rescued by her, and therefore she can’t have any close relationships with them because nobody is going to be there and have her back. You know what I mean? So … what if we empowered instead?
B: So, there’s benefit to seeing the child be the hero in children’s books. And of course, obviously that’s a trope. But there’s something intrinsically woven into our culture and into our society that tries to make someone a hero, and we’re drawn to that.
We’re drawn to wanting to be the hero.
And that saviorism shows up in these spaces, and then we start to, because we’ve “othered” other people.
And this is what the expectation was, right? Matilda was supposed to have “othered” other people, the other children, and we’re all surprised and amazed and so happy that she hasn’t. But what she’s done is, she’s “othered” the adults because the adults have proven themselves to be not trustworthy. Even Ms. Honey, who was intellectually giving [Matilda] things that were exciting and wonderful, emotionally failed her.
Because she doesn’t show up to help her.
She shows up and is like, “Oh, I shared this with you” and then lets Matilda deal with it. And so all the adults fail her.
And Matilda starts to other herself, other the adults around her, and separate herself and say, “I’m not like those people.”
And so we have picked that up and I think that shows up… it’s not even a chicken and an egg scenario. This happens and is written into our stories, and we’re drawn to them because it’s part of the fabric of these worlds we have created for generations and generations and generations, and elevated.
A: All the way back to the Greeks, this idea of, “I’m a hero of the story.”
B: We see almost the same thing reflected in the story of Artemis. She’s the virgin and she’s pure and she’s wonderful and she’s also going to take care of her mother.
A: She’s constantly running to her own mother’s aide. She was, how old was she again? I don’t remember. Her mother was pregnant,
B: She was nine days old.
A: As the story goes, and of course this is Greek mythology, so of course it’s exaggerated because it’s an origin story. But when [Artemis] was nine days old, she went to her own mother’s aide to help her give birth to these twins.
B: It was her own twin!
A: Is the story her own twin? That’s right! Apollo!
That is so crazy. Anyway, like it’s ridiculous, but I’m sure there’s some truth there. You know what I mean?
I think it’s really helpful though. Because I think a lot of girls who are like this grow up feeling responsible for their own mother, and they feel like their mother can’t handle their truth. Her mother can’t handle her own truth, so of course she can’t handle the truth about her daughter. So “I’m just going to run interference between you and the world for the rest of your life, Mom. I’m going to keep you safe. I’m gonna parent you instead of me feeling like I have someone.”
That’s the funny thing, circling back around to:
You do not have to be better at the best thing that your child does in order to be a supportive person in their life.
You do not have to have a higher IQ than your child, or have to be a better intellectual performer than your child in order to be a reliable authority figure in their life, that they can lean into and feel safe. Right? I trust you. I know you have my back, right?
You don’t have to outstrip your child, you don’t have to be better at anything than them. But you can not treat them like your parent, and you can be an example of taking care of your own crap. Like, if you have a problem, figure out how to be an adult and take care of the problem instead of asking for your child to be responsible for you.
B: The more commonly taught parenting pitfall that we see is the dad living vicariously through their athletic son.
A: Yeah, that one’s more on our radar.
B: And you see the way that they’re living vicariously through them, you see the way that they’re pushing them, you see the way that it damages the relationship. But we don’t talk about the way that the nurturing mom doesn’t relate really well with the mind-centered daughter.
It’s two different types of personalities. It’s two different types of thought processes and there are definitely similar dynamics that happen there. And that’s totally the Honey situation, right? She was very nurturing and she wanted to lead and she wanted to guide and she had emotional issues of her own, but just like the dad needs to unpack his own issues, we have to do our work as mothers, we have to do our work as the emotional caregiver. Whether you’re the dad or the mom or whatever, you are responsible for your child, you have to unpack those things.
And honestly this goes into unpacking your saviorism. It goes into unpacking your fragility. It goes to the way that you want to center yourself so that you need to be saved. It goes into it all. There’s so much work that we have to do. We can’t just create these duplicate humans and assume that there our genetic duplicate and expect that they’re going to be the same as us.
A: When your kids see you be honest with yourself about yourself, especially that kind of kid…when they see you tackling your own demons and calling yourself out your own bullshit…
If you’re having an overly sensitive or fragile response to someone else and you’re not taking responsibility for your own mess up, that teaches that child—especially a kid like Matilda—that you cannot be trusted because you’re not very mature. Right? But if they see you doing your work in questioning yourself and saying, “Wow, I really messed that up.”
I have two daughters who are kind of like [Matilda], who come to me on a regular basis and say (I’m not making it up. It sounds like I’m bullshitting; I’m not bullshitting. I’m humbled when they come and say things like this to me. Because if I had not done that, I would have totally missed that boat. Like I just barely squeaked by hanging onto that relationship by the skin of my teeth.)
They say, “Mom, I really like the way that if you mess up, then you talk about how you mess up, and how you’re going to do better, and what your plan is. When you call yourself out that way I just feel really safe around you. If you do something wrong to me, you’re gonna call yourself out.”
I think that it creates a lot of safety and a lot of rapport because they don’t think you need to…well. I have never at any point in my life thought, “Man, I wish my parents were just way smarter than me,” but I have thought, “Man, I wish my parents will call themselves out on this and be really honest about it and not center their own feelings over the fidelity of our relationship.”
A: That causes a lot of safety because then, you can grow together. There’s not like an elephant in the room that the whole family agrees to dance around because some [adult’s] feelings are too sensitive or on the topic. Right? Like, if my kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mom, you got a big butt!” [laughter] I can choose in that moment to go bawl and squall and cry, and tell them that they are really mean kid, and then they have to tell me that that’s not true…
Or, I can still turn to them and say, “That’s not very tactful and a lot of people are not going to respond too well to that.” But I can also own it and take care of my own stuff and be the adult in that situation instead of crying and victimizing myself and sending my spouse after them like an attack dog.
B: Oh my God. Does that bother you too?
B: Like when someone speaks up over you to tell her not to talk to you that way.
A: [deep voice] “Don’t speak to your mom that way!!” Every single time I turn around and shut it down. I’m like, “Hey, excuse me. This is my conversation with Nomi. We’re talking about this, and it has nothing to do with you. I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to stick up for me, but I’m a big girl and I can take care of my feelings.”
Because I think it’s very important for girls who are young to see their mother saying, I can handle this. I can handle my own upset. I can handle my own hurt feelings. I can sort through this myself and I don’t need you to run interference between my feelings and the world around me. Right?
That will earn you so much mileage in a relationship. You get so much mileage out of that, and so much trust.
B: And it pulls stress out of their lives, right? Because it’s very easy. We see it with Hermione’s story, we see it with the Matilda story, we see it in the Artemis story. The expectation is that you [the child] are a capable human, therefore you should save the humans around you. You should know better. You should do better. You should fix this, you should save them, and that is not born of some kind of intrinsic way that we relate to each other.
That was born of supremacy. It’s born and feeling like we’re better than other people, and born of feeling like somebody has to come in and save the day, and that’s not authentic. It’s not emotionally intelligent. It’s not beneficial, and it just keeps us in these cycles of oppression and bad relationships.
B: …emotionally stunted children and emotionally stunted adults, and it’s just not good for anybody. So there’s a lot of unpacking that you have to do. Matilda’s story, on the surface, looks like it’s about intellectual differences, and it looks like it’s about intellectual growth, but really that’s not the case at all.
It’s about unpacking your emotional shit and dealing with it, because that is the work of parenthood.
A: Right? Absolutely. And I think it’s kind of funny slash ironic that sometimes the kids that we lean on the most heavily to take our untended emotional bullshit for us are the ones who need the most mentoring in gaining that skill for themselves, because they are not always the ones who are capable of immediately accessing their own emotions or processing them.
They probably need more help than the average bear, but because they can intellectualize their emotions and talk about them and observe them from the outside, people come and just dump shit on them, right? They never learned how to take care of themselves emotionally and identify where their own feelings live.
B: And they’re not physically reactive to it. So we think that that neutral face means that they’re handling it. Well.
A: “You’re going to be the lead container for a radioactive material.”
B: Which we saw when we talked about with young Tiffany Aching. Yup. [Next week] we’ll move into talking about [Tiffany] as an adult. So, next time…
A: Thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to find us @RaisingHermione on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And if you enjoyed this or are feeling especially generous, you can follow our Patreon link from our website, raisinghermione.com. See you next time!