Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Darker Kiddie Lit

Before Christmas, as we let our 2-year-old watch various holiday specials, we noticed something. She is a big fan of Mickey Mouse, by way of The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Naturally, then, we TiVoed the Disney special, which was a bunch of the old shorts (which we both remembered at least vaguely from our own childhoods. In one, Pluto chases around Chip and Dale, who have entered Mickey's house; Pluto's feelings toward the chipmunks are, well, about what you should expect from a dog toward rodents. In another, Donald Duck--in his usual cranky form--wages a fierce snow war on his nephews. What stands out for us is how, well, nice all the characters basically are to each other on The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. The main characters are always friends to each other; Pete sometimes acts as the "villain" of the show, but he's always brought around by the end, and everyone is always nice to him no matter what he does to them. The older shows have a much wider range of feelings and behaviors, particularly with regard to more negative emotions.

And then there's the Charlie Brown Christmas special. You know, one of the most-beloved animated holiday specials of all time. But wow. I'd forgotten just how mean the kids basically are to each other. Lucy bullies everyone around, characters call each other "dumb" or "stupid." At times, they're just plain mean to each other. Yet, it has endured--will any of the nicer, gentler animated features that are being produced today?

The thing is, much as we would like to think that it's otherwise, kids really are mean to each other (sometimes). They really do call each other names, even from a young age. It was the same when I was a kid in the '80s, judging by Charlie Brown, it was true of kids in the '60s, and I have no doubt that it's true today. It would be a better world if it weren't so, but it is, and perhaps that fact speaks to the special's staying power (and that of the Disney special I referenced earlier). Some people are jerks, sometimes even good people get frustrated and upset, and sometimes imperfect people see the error of their ways and sometimes they don't. File it under "art imitates reality." We can and should discourage our kids from treating each other so poorly, but that's not the same as insulating them from its fact.

Related to this, we recently heard little more than the fact of Peggy Orenstein (author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter) on The Diane Rehm Show. I heard perhaps 2 minutes of the broadcast and Lauren heard a blurb for it, but I mentioned it to her again later and she saw and picked up the book at our local library because it spoke to concerns she herself has had. Lauren read to me portions of one of the chapters, comparing the sanitized versions of various fairy tales to their original versions. She read a few, and she also pointed me to this passage from Orenstein's book:

if you believe the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, we avoid the Grimms' grimness at our peril. His classic book The Uses of Enchantment argues that the brothers' gore is not only central to the tales' appeal, it's crucial to kids' emotional development. [...] According to Bettelheim, fairy tales and only fairy tales--as opposed to myths or legends--tap into children's unconscious preoccupations with such knotty issues as sibling rivalry or the fear of an omnivorous mother. In their tiny minds, the fearsome giant may be transformed into the school bully, a menacing wolf into a neighbor's put bull. Fairy tales demonstrate that hardship may be inevitable, but those who stand fast emerge victorious. What's more, he wrote, the solutions to life's struggles that fairy tales suggest are subtle, impressionistic, and therefore more useful than either the spoon-fed pap that passes for kiddie "literature" these days or the overly concrete images of television (and now the Internet). He goes so far as to say that without exposure to fairy tales a child will be emotionally stunted, unable to create a meaningful life. 
This speaks to me of the same issues I looked at above. Children may not be able to work through or understand all the nuance of the darker stories, but perhaps in the end that will be part of their appeal, part of what keeps drawing one back to them. What we acquire without effort is often not valued highly or really internalized.

There's surely something to be said for "age appropriate" material, but being sensitive to that probably shouldn't mean avoiding darker, more difficult material that is more challenging for children and adults as well. In the end, our job as parents is to prepare our children for life, and "Therefore, since the world has still / Much good, but much less good than ill," part of our job is to prepare our children for the difficult realities, and we can't do that without some exposure to the darker side of life, and stories allow them--and us--to do that in a safe(r) manner.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, child-rearing is hard. I'll stick with bunnies. : )