Reflections on Parenting from Emma Donoghue's "Room"

by - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Room tells the story of five-year-old Jack, who lives with his Ma in an eleven foot square room and has never been Outside. Narrated entirely n Jack's voice, the book begins on Jack's fifth birthday when he begins to ask questions and Ma reveals that there is an entire world outside their walls which he has yet to explore.

Truly, this is one of the most captivating and memorable books I have ever read and I cannot recommend it enough. Though many reviews have remarked on the underlying political and sociological themes, I was most smitten by those surrounding parenting and the lessons we can learn as mothers from the harrowing tale of this mother and child.

Rather than simply write a book review for Room (of which there are already plenty), I decided instead to use this as an opportunity to reflect on what we can learn from this fictional mother and child in relation to parenting in the real world.

In order to write this post effectively, I'm afraid I will need to reveal a little of the events which occur in Room's storylines. For the sake of those who have not yet enjoyed this excellent novel, I will endeavour not to reveal too much - at least, no more than the major reviews of Room which you may have already read.

Children are reassured by routine

Jack and his Ma find solace in their everyday routines. They bathe together every day, eat lunch at noon, watch TV only at specific times and by 9pm every night, Jack is safely tucked away in Wardrobe.

When the two are Outside, Jack is disturbed by the changes to their routines. He wonders why they don't eat lunch at 12pm as they always used to, why they will no longer have Sundaytreat, why bedtimes are different. Despite his innocent wonder at the world which has opened up around them, Jack craves the reassuring comfort of the routines he and Ma adopted in Room.

Children need routines in order to feel a sense of stability and safety. They experience change on a daily basis and are unable to control it. From weaning onto solid foods as infants, through to moving home and changes within the family (such as the birth of a sibling). As children start school, they encounter unfamiliar people and challenges, and learn new concepts at an astonishing rate.

For children and adults alike, change is handled best when it is done in the familiar context of routine. This familiarity allows children to feel safe in the knowledge that they have mastery over at least some aspects of their lives.

Children do not require expensive toys

In Room, Jack has only five books and (initially) no toys at all to play with. Yet we see at five years old that he is highly intelligent, his development barely hampered by his confinement to a single room since  Ma's resourcefulness has provided all the stimulation he required.

Mother and child saved toilet rolls to make a fort; made a snake from empty eggshells, and used artwork found on cereal boxes to decorate their walls. Ma learned how to make play-dough using flour, water and salt so Jack could sculpt his own figures to play with, and even devised a program of "Phys-Ed" for daily exercise.

It's difficult to imagine our own children developing so well without proper toys to play with, but Ma's example demonstrates that we really don't need to purchase expensive products in order to educate and stimulate our precious little minds. A little imagination and resourcefulness can go a long way, and a young child's most important toys are his parents!

Trust your maternal instincts

Ma gave birth to Jack alone in Room, and for the first five years of his life she had absolutely no support network whatsoever: no midwife to call for advice, no parenting manuals for reference, and certainly no Doctor Spock! But by trusting her inner voice, she knew instinctively how best to raise her son: a bright and healthy child who ultimately becomes the saviour for them both.

Maternal instinct is a powerful educator for a new mum, particularly in modern society where women are often geographically isolated from their familial support network. Mothers instinctively know what their children need from the very start: when they are hungry, when they need to be held close and comforted.

As the Jewish proverb states, "A mother understands what the child does not say". Parenting manuals are for children in general. As mothers, we know our children and their needs more than anyone else in the world.

Children thrive in a variety of situations

Despite being born and raised in a room closed off from the rest of the world, Jack is a happy and contented boy, even throughout the massive changes which happen when he and Ma emerge on the Outside.

He encounters many new places, people and situations yet does not withdraw into himself. Instead he learns to thrive on this new experiences: asking questions and experimenting to familiarise himself and discover his place in this new world.

As parents, we should remind ourselves that children adapt well to new experiences. While we may suffer sleepless nights at the thought of leaving our child at nursery for the first time or ponder how they will cope in a new home, we quickly notice how well our young ones absorb change and learn to thrive in new scenarios. 

What matters most to children is that they feel safe and loved, despite the changes in their lives. So long as their needs are met, children can look upon the world around them with a sense of innocent wonder and learn to find their place within it.

Further reading

If you haven't already done so, I heartily recommend that you read Room right now to understand why I regard this novel so highly.

For those of you who have already enjoyed it, you may be interested to learn more about the author and her considerations in writing Jack's story by visiting these links:

What do you think?

Did you enjoy reading Room? What are your thoughts on my interpretations of "parenting lessons" gleaned from this masterpiece of fiction?

Please feel free to join the conversation by leaving your comments below.

Image credit:Pink Sherbert Photography, via Flickr

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