Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Need Every Child (Protagonist) Save the Day? Is that Even Healthy?

 Here are a few synopses of imaginary stories for children. They sound convincingly typical, right?

“Maggie’s friends all have special talents. George is a singer. Lily can make friends with any animal. Gertrude dances in a junior ballet troupe that is slated to amuse the troops on Endor. However, as the mean girls at school like to point out, Maggie doesn’t seem good at anything at all. Will Maggie find her true talent and build her self-esteem?” 
“Little Leggie is the only ant in the colony who likes to look at the stars at night and who decorates his bedroom with vintage astronomy posters. When an asteroid heads toward earth, Little Leggie thinks that he just might know the solution to saving all living species from extinction.” 
“Bobbie’s parents have started to whisper together when they think he is not looking, and he can tell that they are talking about something scary. Will Bobbie be able to discover the danger to his family in time? Will he believe in himself enough to ignore all of his parents’ house rules, and thus to save the world? Will they weep and apologize for not trusting him with news of their imminent foreclosure?”

Contemporary stories are filled with youthful characters who struggle with their identity and their place in the world. Almost inevitably, they discover that they are special, and that believing in their specialness is the way to achieve their dreams (even if their “dreams” might be better characterized as whims or wishful thinking). Sometimes they even save the world along the way. Any deviation from this pattern sticks out like a sore thumb

Are such tales are a good influence or a bad one? On the one hand, they are silly. They feed right into the ridiculous parenting culture that Mollie Hemingway describes here. Worse, they nurture the human tendency toward narcissism by teaching children to focus on themselves and their right to the limelight. Yet on the other hand, tales of triumphant underdogs and third sons come from a long and enduring tradition. It could even be said that Christian writers like Lewis and Tolkien were influential in creating a desire for stories about ordinary characters who find themselves in epic plots. Indeed, the idea that even the lowliest individual is valuable, special, and beloved by God comes straight from Christianity, and is probably an example of lingering (even if distorted) Christian influence on our culture.

So, what am I (as a no-doubt-overly-picky-first-time-parent-who-loves-choosing-books-for-my-child) to conclude? I can’t help noting that old-fashioned writers for children, such as E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, told stories of children who rarely question their social roles and are unlikely to go in search of a special place in the universe. Such protagonists begin the book as essentially secure individuals. They experience childlike, small-scale adventures, and enjoy their lives. They rarely win respect or acclaim from adults or from anyone outside of their own circle of friends. 

Some would say that these books were produced in a safer, more sheltered world, and that modern kids need books that address the challenges they face. Perhaps so.

Yet I cannot help wondering if our modern stories might not feed the insecurity they address. If our fictional characters usually achieve the acclaim that they crave, doesn’t that communicate that our children also ought to achieve it? Doesn't it hint that acclaim is perhaps part of one’s personal value? Doesn’t that teach children to seek validation from the admiration of their peers?

Some contemporary stories do buck the "applause trend." A friend recommended several board books to me recently. One was Eric Rohmann's My Friend Rabbit, a delightful little book that uses both text and pictures to tell a story. In this tale, decisions are made and things happen, but no cosmic resolution is reached. Readers are given the impression that Rabbit (who means well, but causes trouble for the protagonist) is unlikely to change. Yet that is OK, because Rabbit is the protagonist's friend, and friendship lends tolerance and patience to their relationship. That's a pretty good story. Surely it's a much better one than if Rabbit and his friend had saved the forest and won the admiration of all the other animals.


  1. You get my applause for this article! Well said! My children's favorite stories are the ones I tell them about my childhood, how I stopped the ice cream truck every Wednesday and played Chinese jump rope with all the Vietnamese kids. No saving the world, but they still say "Tell us again, Mom."

    1. I have some vivid memories of my dad's childhood stories.

  2. Could it be like the equivalent of too much praise for a child?

    1. Ah, that's a good point. Have you read NurtureShock? The discussion about how too much praise (and especially the wrong kind of praise) can actually decrease a child's likelihood of trying new, hard things is fascinating. Yes, perhaps this kind of book could actually make it less likely (rather than more likely) that kids don't act on their ambitions. After all, what chance have they of succeeding as wildly as their fictional role-models?

  3. I've not read it, but I've read a few like-minded blurps of articles. I think I lived it, though, when I was a child. I felt so much pressure to do well even though my parents never, ever, ever told me I should. They just praised and praised--all well-meaning, of course.


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