A short festival on Parental Advice Giving

‘It’s not time to make a change
Just relax and take it easy
You’re still young, that’s your fault
There’s so much you have to go through’
Father and Son

Cat Stevens

When I first heard that song, I was on the Son’s side.
It was the late sixties and I was anxious to dump puberty for adulthood. The advice was banal, conservative, resigned – everything I was determined not to be. I was sure it’s not what I would say to my kids. Now, a Father, like the King of Siam in the King and I, I have to say ‘Is a puzzlement, what to tell a growing boy’ (or girl). This festival, held in a run down TAFE classroom at night, with carter’s coffee and sweet biscuits handy, searches for clues.

We begin with a trio of mothers and mothers to be. Maria emerges from under a paisley print doona with The Sound of Music to suggest we pass on to the kids that when the dog bites, the bee stings, or they feel sad, they need only run through their favourite things and they won’t feel so bad (which, however, is bad news for pharmaceutical companies). Following comes Julie whose Carousel has gone a bit awry. Husband Bill was killed during a robbery he was committing to get money to make sure their expected daughter won’t be ‘brought up in slums with a lot of bums’ like him. Unfortunately, she starts to take up with some carnies, till Bill returns as a ghost to set her straight, which he does by slapping her. This seems to work, for soon mother and daughter are singing to her graduating class that ‘when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high’ and ‘you’ll never walk alone’, even if it is with an abusive ghost father. As the first part of the festival ends Doris Day reprises her big moment from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, bursting into the room singing that most sunnily fatalistic of all pieces of advice from parent to child:

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera.

Women aren’t the only anodyne advice givers, however. As an intermission, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, will coo to us to Teach Your Children that they must ‘have a code to live by’ through which to ‘become yourselves, because the past is just a goodbye’.
The snorting we hear in response to this comes from Polonius, father-in-law to Hamlet but for his unfortunate skewering by said Prince, infuriated by the impracticality of this advice. He launches into his ‘few precepts’ that he offered his son Laertes, which run for twenty iambic pentameters and that’s a lot in Shakespeare. He rattles on about ‘apparel oft proclaims the man’, ‘neither a borrower or a lender be’, ‘give every man thine ear but few thy voice’. Just when we are all dozing off, he drops the big one: ‘This above all – to thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man’. This is uncomfortably close to Messrs CSN & Y. Should we be paying attention?
The King of Siam is much less sure of what to say. The stakes for him are, after all, higher; the direction in which he should have his son move their country as it opens to the West. In his soliloquy he considers what to tell his son about women (as he feels he can no longer expect just to see them as servants, wives or concubines), about trusting others, and which of the outward shows of power to retain. His ruminations on alliances are alarmingly pertinent to Australia today.
Shall I join with other nations in alliance?
If allies are weak am I not best alone?
If allies are strong with power to protect me
Might they not protect me out of all I own?
But in the end, there is danger in advice giving as children head Into the Woods as Sondheim reminds us. In his take on fairy tales, wishes, curses, and rules for living have unintended consequences that threaten the stability of family and society. Thirty years before, Judy’s parents made this mistake. They told her that Johnny, The Leader of the Pack, with whom she had fallen in love ‘came from the wrong side of the tracks’ and that she ‘should find someone new’. When she tells Johnny it’s over he rides off straight into the crash that kills him. Judy vows never to forget him. Unspoken is that she will also probably never forgive her parents.

So the festival closes on a not of caution from Sondheim’s Witch, a mother trying to do the best for her children and facing the impossibility of protecting them from life:
Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Children may not obey, but children will listen.
Careful before you say ‘Listen to me’.
Children will listen.

Printed from: http://www.paulvanreyk.com.au/?page_id=130 .
© Paul van Reyk 2019.