Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Happily Ever After, Please (At Least 80% of the time)

Boni Ashburn recently pointed out an article about the current trend of parents not reading fairy tales to their children, especially stories that parents think might upset their kids. After I read the article, I found myself thinking about the topic a great deal. (Boni has a follow-up post on this, which I haven't read yet, because I thought it would be a fun exercise to find out how much our opinions on this differ, or don't. But after I do read her post, I'll link to it at the end of this one).

I’m of two minds on this topic. (UPDATE: Before I go any further, I should clarify that what I'm about to say here applies to me/my children only. It's a "here's where I stand personally" statement -- not a "here's where everyone should stand" declaration. In fact, I'm quite happy that mine is probably the minority view on all this. And another clarification is that what I say applies to what I choose to read to them, not what they choose to read to themselves. They're much more adventurous than I am, which I applaud. Anyway. Back to my two minds...)

Mind One, which is about 80% of my opinion, thinks that it’s AOK – and probably in fact a good thing -- for parental discretion to err on the side of caution, and for parents to avoid reading/sharing stories (be they traditional or contemporary) that have a dark undercurrent, or a potentially upsetting plot, or irredeemable characters. I happen to be a card-carrying member of the Happy Ending Club, so what I share with my kids reflects that. I feel uncomfortable reading aloud or offering up books to young children in which people die or are in great peril or are eaten or almost eaten or are tricked by grown-ups or are abandoned by parents. And I have been known to elide over sections of text that I think aren’t going to go over well with my kids for whatever reason.

I also bring to my Mind One thinking the fact that unfortunately, not all kids grow up in great situations. These kids, especially, deserve stories that reinforce the idea that good things can and should happen, and stories that give them a place to go that welcomes them.

But a corollary of this is what brings me around to Mind Two, a small but important part of my thinking on the matter.

Mind Two is where I consider the socio-cultural implications of a large mass of loving-caring parents reading only loving-caring stories to their well-loved, well-cared-for, well-off children. That scenario is lovely, indeed, but for one thing: the potential for those well-loved, well-protected children to conclude that life is always fair and that anything short of a happy ending is an unacceptable failure. Grown-ups who hang onto this sort of thinking tend to make themselves miserable (by blaming themselves for not measuring up) or make others miserable (by blaming them for not providing them with the happy-ending life they're "entitled" to.) Certainly, this sort of mindset stems from more than just the books that a child hears and reads, but it's also true that stories feed into that.

For kids who have a happy childhood, it truly is important to introduce at least a little understanding that life doesn’t always go smoothly. Not only does this help kids cope later with some of their own bumps-in-the-road, it also helps develop empathy for others. Literature is a "safe" way to introduce some of these concepts. Perhaps this is why fairy tales which include unsettling elements have been so enduring.

Which is why maybe, just maybe, those of us who are strongly inclined to avoid them entirely might want to at least occasionally reconsider that.

As a child, I read the story of the little match girl. All through the story, in the back of my mind, I was waiting for the happy ending plot turn or the new character who would rescue the little girl from the wretched cold. But that's not how the story ends. The little match girl lights her last match and then dies in the cold. I cried when I got to the ending, and the story has always haunted me.

But for what the story taught me of compassion, I have never once regretted it.

UPDATE: Here's Boni's post (which, despite what she says, is not bombastic!). I have to say, I agree with most of what she says, even if we sorta disagree (but also sorta agree, if that makes sense). EJ at Mi Mi Mi Mi also has a great post. And the Read Roger post and comments are here.


Boni Ashburn said...

Aw, Debbie, I love your post! It brings up so many great counter-points to my bombastic way of thinking. My downfall is always, and I mean always, assuming that everyone and everyone's life situation is just like mine, which it completely ISN'T. You're so right about kids whose lives may not be as fortunate NOT needing to hear some of the dark stuff in fairy tales- they need the hope! I'm thinking it's the ones who are shielded from EVERYTHING that are going to have the unrealistic view of the world and that's only part of the audience.

I never get tired of this topic and thinking about its ins and outs and implications on kids- and I love that we mostly disagree and I still like you- hee hee! :)

I'm gonna go link to your counterpoint on my blog!

Jacqui said...

This fascinates me. I tend to be more of your Mind Two, officially. But I also control pretty carefully what my daughter and son read and watch, which seems paradoxical. Maybe I'd draw a totally artificial line between the dark undercurrent/potentially upsetting plot or unhappy ending stories and the glorifying violence or offering no hope of happiness or redemption stories.

Ellen said...

I truly enjoyed your post, Debbie, and this is a subject that's actually close to my heart. I do believe that every parent has to do what they believe is in the best interests of their children.

However, I am reminded of Albert Einstein's wonderful quotez; "If you want your child to be brilliant, read him fairy tales. If you want him to be a genius, read him MORE fairy tales"

As both a teacher, a parent, and passionate bookaholic, I believe too many children are not exposed to enough creativity and lateral thinking. Fairy tales, by their very nature are not real. Most children can distinguish between "real" and "pretend" at a very young age. Additionally, I believe fairy tales are a healthy, and non-threatening way to work through challenging a way that's safe and so far from one's own reality that it makes a safe dream-like haven for children to explore these emotions without really feeling that pain themselves. I also think that *resolution* in fairy tales is a vital component to good tales.

One final note: multi-cultural and international fairy tales are also great. We tend to get bogged down in Grimm and Anderssen, but there is a world of great stories out there of amazing stories, that can also add some life lessons about myths, folk tales and fairy stories from around the world.

I guess I'd fall into the camp of less censorship...of age appropriate, WELL WRITTEN, material.