The ancient Spartans probably would be proud to know that we use their name today as a synonym for self-discipline and avoidance of luxury. They might be less pleased with our opinion of their child-rearing philosophy, which was a cross between Attila the Hun and Super Nanny on steroids.
Their nurturing attitude toward the young is summed up in the familiar story about the Spartan boy and the fox. As part of their rigid training, boys were taught to steal to supplement their meager food rations but were severely punished if they got caught at it. This boy had stolen the fox, intending to eat it. In danger of discovery, he hid the fox under his clothes, where it started gnawing at him. He kept the animal hidden and endured the pain without flinching, until the fox ate its way into his vital organs and he died.
Just imagine what reality television could have done with this. "Desperate Schoolboys." "Suffering With the Stars." "Are You Tougher Than a Fourth Grader?"
For centuries, this Spartan boy was held up as a role model for toughness, honor, and self-control. Well, maybe. I think his real motivation was a little different. Here's why.
One day when I was about seven or eight, I discovered a pile of little onions in the large round planter in the middle of the front yard. It didn't occur to me to wonder why my mother or grandmother would have pulled onions from the garden and left them in the yard rather than taking them into the house.
I didn't especially like onions, but in one of the small spasms of recklessness that occasionally disturbed the timidity of my childhood, I decided to eat one. It didn't taste at all oniony. In fact, it didn't have much flavor at all. About the time I swallowed the last bit, I realized, with that sinking feeling you get when you recognize you've made a mistake precisely one second too late to take it back, that I had eaten a tulip bulb.
I went into the house and asked my mother, with great casualness, whether tulip bulbs were poisonous. Probably, she said. She may have thought she was discouraging me from nibbling on things that shouldn't be nibbled. It obviously didn't occur to her that I was asking after the fact. Maybe I was a little too casual.
For the next couple of days, I worried. I waited for symptoms of acute tulip poisoning to show up—tummy aches, dizziness, my tongue turning black, paralysis, death, whatever. I didn't sleep well. I may have even lost my appetite.
What I didn't do was tell my mother or anyone else that I had eaten something that might possibly be poison. Thankfully, I never did get sick. If I had, I hope I would have been brave enough to fess up. But I walked around for a couple of days wondering whether I was going to die—and I was too embarrassed to say anything. That's how ashamed I was of being too dumb to know the difference between an onion and a tulip bulb.
That Spartan boy? He was tough and self-disciplined, all right. But I think what really made him hide his suffering was fear that someone would catch him making a mistake. In part, that kid died of shame.