Friday, October 24, 2008

Kids and Scary Things

With Halloween approaching, Mary Grace has been obsessed with all things Spooooky and Scarrrry. She only wants to read Halloween themed books, she shrieks when we drive down the street and see the neighbor's decorations, and she shivers and asks me about ghosts and monsters.

Until recently, I had her convinced that the ghosts in her books were just "spooky clouds." Then we started reading Scooby Doo books...

I got to thinking about kids, stories, and fears... The original, non-Disneyified fairy tales were pretty gruesome. Cinderella's step-sisters cut off chunks of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper, for example. The Little Mermaid's prince married some other broad, and instead of killing him with the magic knife (which would've made her a mermaid again), she killed herself. Don't even get me started about the original Little Red Riding Hood - yeek!

Up until quite recently (my guess is the 1950s, but it could've really been as late as the 70s or 80s), kids' stories have had at least a little bit of darkness in them. Even cradle songs were pretty bleak... "when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all!" (I understood that one a lot better once I had spent a few nights up with a crying baby...)

But now we live in a world where we're supposed to protect our "precious snowflakes" from every danger, fear, disappointment, and heartbreak. They have to wear helmets, pads, and long pants whenever they get on a bike. Their stories are watered down so that even the bad characters are sympathetic, and the good characters don't really have much to overcome (I'm thinking of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, where the worst "bad guy" is a cat who over-charges Mickey for fishing in the ponds, or won't sell Goofy a hat that fits). If one kid is invited to the birthday party, many schools have made it a policy that the entire class must be invited (I'll save my rant about the schools dictating what my family must and musn't do during private family time for when my kids are actually in school).

But here's the thing: Childhood is not supposed to be an idyllic time of unending happiness and perfection. It's supposed to be a time of preparation - preparing to be adults. Kids start learning, pretty much from birth, how to deal with adversity - how to deal with disappointment, fear, danger, and heartbreak. If they don't ever learn these lessons, you end up with a bunch of broken overgrown babies running around, who don't know how to deal with anything.

I really think that children's stories, historically, have been designed to say, "Hey, look at Cinderella, her mom died and she acquired a wicked step-mother, and she overcame it and went on to live happily ever after, and so can you!"

What are kids' biggest fears? Monsters - Rumplestiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast. The woods/scary animals - Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood. Being lost - Hansel and Gretyl. Lack of freedom - Rapunzel. Losing a parent - just about every kids' story since the dawn of time. Each of these stories has other messages, depending on how you want to analyze them, but they all have one common, overarching message - you can overcome adversity, just like these heroes have overcome their struggles. You can succeed in spite of the bad things that are inevitably going to happen in your life.

But when we take out all the scary stuff, when we make them G rated and don't let kids learn from these timeless stories, could we be stunting them, emotionally? Could we be failing in our primary duty as parents, to teach them how to cope? I think maybe so.

I'm not saying that my kids are ready to watch Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. I still haven't sat through all of The Exorcist, and I'm 32. But I think it's valuable and healthy to let our kids be afraid (because, face it, they're going to be afraid anyway, no matter how we try to shield them), and to give them models for how to handle themselves in the face of those fears.

BJ did the most brilliant thing a couple of weeks ago. Mary Grace had been watching the "Yoda" video on Youtube, and she decided that "Yoda" was in her room scaring her at night, and used this as an excuse to come into the safety of our bed. Her smart Daddy showed her the part of one of the newer Star Wars movies where Yoda is teaching the young children how to be Jedis. Poof - end of the Yoda fear.

Of course, she isn't ready to watch the entire Star Wars series (mainly because I don't want to have to sit through them!! We'll save that for next time Mommy's out of town!), but showing her this little part where the scary looking guy was being nice to people like herself was just what she needed. What did she learn? She learned that sometimes people look different, but that doesn't mean they're bad. She learned that something can be scary in appearance and still be good. Good stuff. (He's such an awesome dad!) Most of all, she learned that if she's afraid of something, and she works hard to understand it, suddenly it isn't as scary as she thought. (I've tried to take this same approach to the economic crisis, but unfortunately the more I learn, the scarier it gets. Where are all the fairy tales about macroeconomics? Maybe I need to re-read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves? Robin Hood? Help me out here...)

I guess what I'm getting at is that we need to stop trying to protect our kids from every damn thing, and give them small, measured, appropriate doses of scariness. How else are they going to learn to be brave, so that when something really scary happens, they know that they can cope? It's worth a couple of sleepless nights to have a little girl who isn't afraid of people who don't look like everyone else, don't you think?

And hopefully, when real adversity comes to her little life (and it will, it must, that's how life is - people get hurt, people die, scary things happen every day) she'll have a framework within which to process it. She'll believe in herself, because she believes in these characters who have taught her how to rise above it. After all, she is a princess.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree. I have the same approach to parenting. Mikey had this fascination with the coffee pot which is obviously hot. DH would tell him that it's hot but he does not know what hot is!!! So i let him touch it when it was hot but not scalding hot and he never touched it again. And now he knows what hot means and is no longer touching the faucets when he's in the bath because I told him that the water will be 'hot' It's very similar to what you are saying. It is our responsibility as parents to prepare them for the real world. You said it all very well. Oh and by the way, I was read those creepy fairy tales and I turned out just fine!

Anonymous said...

Did you know that "101 Dalmations" was the first Disney movie with an intact family? (Cartoon movie...Swiss Family Robinson was intact but with actors).
Trivia is my life.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to comment and let you know how much I've really enjoyed reading your parenting posts. I have a 6 mo old and found your blog while I was pregnant...reading it has helped me think about how I want to parent my son. I have loved your "Two under Two" posts and especailly remember a post you did on time outs (I hope that was you! As I type this I'm losing my certainty...)

At any rate, I just wanted to let you know that you are having a positive impact on random people like me!

Oh, and I LOVE how you guys showed MG that Yoda can be scary, but really is a good guy. Such a great way of handling the situation!

strwberrryjoy said...

I remember reading about "the elephant man" in about 2-3 grade in school and spending the rest of the day terrified he was going to get me. I refused to go to bed and couldn't explain why. I finally just showed my mom the worksheet packet with him on it and same deal... she explained just because he looks scary, he's not. Very good post!