The final reductio ad absurdum of my generation's odd belief that a person who would put his or her creative talents to work scaring children is only one step above a person who would molest them was the brief national trauma that took place last year over The Day After. This TV film dealt - in a sanitized and fairly unrealistic way- with the aftermath of a major nuclear exchange. Most of the discussion before the film's showing, however, centered on how many fuses it was hoing to blow in the geads of the kids who happened to see it.
I asked my youngest son what he thought after he saw it(it was on too late for him, but I videotaped it.)
"Does that snow really give you cancer?" he asked, referrig to the fallout.
"Yes," I said.
"Well, if I get it, shoot me before it hets too gross," he said, and went outside to shoot some baskets.
I asked some of his friends what they thought of it, but none of them had seen it.
"You let Owen watch that?" said a mother of one of these friends to me, She was looking at me the way you might look at a dog who has begun to exhibit the preliminary symptoms of rabies. "Hasn't he had nightmares?"
"Naw," Owen's friend interjected laconically, "His dad writes horror stories for a living." He paused, then elaborated:"Owen is exposed to horror every day of his life."
We haven't seen much of that particular friend since.
I figure Mom thinks what I have might be catching.
Which of course leads to the question of whether or not it's wrong to frighten children. I think my use of the phrase reductio ad absurdum in the first sentence of this little essay pretty well expresses my own feeling. I believe the idea that scaring the kids is wrong is the moral judgment of a generation that seems itself to want to remain as childlike as possible for as long as possible. These new -- yet, for the most part, surprisingly old -- parents have conceived a fallacious view of their children's mental stability.
THE AMOUNT of scary material to which a child has free access has been whittled down a lot during the last 10 years. Poltergeist, a film in which a scientist appears to pull his own face apart in front of a mirror, was a PG when it was released; today it would be hard to get an R for the same film. The same is true of Jaws. That PG-rated film featured severed limbs, decaying corpses, and Robert Shaw sliding into the fanged mouth of the shark, raving and spewing blood. I have seen a steadily escalating campaign to get my own novels -- especially The Shining, Cujo, and Salem's Lot, out of public school libraries. "I am troubled by the increasing hold your stories seem to exercise over my son's mind," a mother wrote to me last month, and this sort of letter is also on the upswing.
Children, however, have their own set of emotional muscles to develop. Like the adults they will become, they receive positive reinforcement for exercising some of those muscles. You are congratulated for helping your little brother with his model plane; for being brave, thrifty, clean and reverent; for taking time to love and be kind.
But also like the adults they will become, children possess another set of emotional muscles, and using those results in negative reinforcement. Helping little brother with his model plane makes you a Do-Bee; stomping on it because the little booger put Elmer's Glue in your fish-tank probably gets you kept home from the movies on Saturday afternoon. Sooner or later the child learns the lesson (unless he or she has mental and emotional problems or insensitive parents) and becomes behaviorally housebroken.
The romantic view that children come to us, in Wordsworth's phrase, "trailing clouds of glory," persists. It is one I subscribe to myself. I realize it is mostly cornball foolishness but seem helpless to correct my own saphead view of childhood as a state of grace . . . or my heart may know something my head doesn't (he added hopefully). But don't let this view of children and childhood blind you to what an hour's visit to any pre-school play-yard will make obvious: children hate, children fear, children may be cowardly, mean and unpleasant.
But those charged with the physical education of these negative emotions have traditionally been creative people, chief among them the story-tellers, artists, and, in the last 50 years or so, the film makers.
Children must also have their positive emotions exercised through imagination, of course; they need Heidi, the Care Bears, Babar the Elephant and his multitudinous kin; they will always respond to such kindly folk as Dr. Dolittle, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Tiny Tim. There will always be a Yellow Brick Road, I reckon, and a Dorothy to walk it with Toto and her fabulous friends.
BUT CHILDREN are full of fear and anger as well, and to exercise these emotions (exercise, not exorcise; the child who lives without fear is not apt to live long, as any parent who has ever seen his or her toddler poking enthusiastically at an electrical socket with a meat-fork will testify) the child is almost completely dependent upon the services of story-tellers. The monsters are real, as every child knows, even if they are only his fears of crossing the street alone, of being laughed at by his mates if he is the last one in class to master the fine art of shoe-tying, of coming home to an empty house because both parents work, of his parents divorcing or dying. His fears of dying himself.
In the child's world, emotions are printed in the same bright primary colors as the walls of his classrooms. Their joys are simple and sublime; their terrors are black indeed. The terrors need to be faced, even if they can never be conquered. Think of it as psychic salt, if you want. A steady diet of the stuff would first drive you mad and then kill you. But without a little of it, you get goiter. Here are five pinches of terror that I think every child between the ages of 3 and 6 should taste. And when the story is done, it wouldn't be wrong to say something like, "Of course that was all made up, but it sure was weird, wasn't it?"
*"Hansel and Gretel": This bit of savagery is not much mitigated by the happy ending, but it deals with the deepest fears most children ever have: that mother and father may not really love them, may indeed want to ditch them. If your child is clingy and a bit panicky in crowded situations (department stores, for instance), this is a story he or she needs. To adults it may seem an almost inexcusable manipulation of a child's emotions; to the child it usually offers a clear relief: Thank God it's not that bad here! One I would steer clear of if possible is "Little Red Riding Hood," with its rather more sinister suggestion of monstrosity lurking behind the familiar face of a loved one.
*"Little Black Sambo": This one is supposedly racist, and certainly it has some racist elements. Children, however, do not perceive this. To them, Sambo's just another kid. If you as a parent are sufficiently troubled by the "cute little black boy" undertone, I suggest you color the kid white and read it (or tell it) simply as "Little Sambo." Or make him green, set it on the planet Degobah, and call it "Little Green Yoda." The point is, "Sambo" is a scary story about a child beset by tigers. The tigers eat his fine clothes, one by one -- a sequence which usually makes some of the children hearing the story cry (especially if they don't have many clothes themselves and empathize with Sambo's agony). It ends on a note of much more convincing cheer than "Hansel and Gretel," however; Sambo turns out to be a thinking dude, and he more than makes up for the loss of the clothes by turning those pesky tigers into enough butter to support his family for a couple of months. "Little Black Sambo" is for every child who ever shrieked in terror at the barks of an angry dog (or was bitten by one) or fears animals of any kind. At bottom it's probably the simple fear of being eaten up. For every child who weeps over the loss of the boy's new clothes, there are five who are finally able to say, relieved, "Yes! That's why I always want to cross the street when we come to the Rogans' house!"
*Bambi: "Hansel and Gretel" deals with the child's fear of parental cruelty and abandonment; Bambi, the G-rated Disney cartoon which also happens to be one of the scariest movies ever made, deals with the other great parent-directed fear of childhood: that one of them will die. Steven Spielberg's E.T. also deals effectively with the death of a loved one, but I prefer Bambi. The Disney picture is crueler, but it tells a deeper truth: death is another word for forever.
*"The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins": This Dr. Seuss story is rather more effective and a lot more scary than the good doctor's later -- and better known -- The Cat in the Hat, although both deal with a fear that plagues children as well as adults: the something bad or scary that happens for no reason at all. It is for every child who has cried out, "But it's not my fault!" In "Hats," Bartholemew is the son of a poor peasant. He finds a hat on the day the King is due to arrive with his retinue. One is expected, of course, to take one's hat off before the King, and Bartholemew certainly tries his best, but below the first hat is a second . . . below the second a third . . . and so on. Bartholemew, still frantically trying to take off his hat, becomes the object of general consternation. The King, a nice guy but a prisoner of his station as much as Bartholemew is of his, is persuaded that if the kid won't remove his hat, he must have his head removed instead. So Bartholemew is led up the stairs of a tower, still leaving dropped hats on every step (only now they are growing fancier and fancier), until he is brought face to face with the dreadful executioner, whose hood is as black and inexplicable as the phenomenon of the hats itself. At the penultimate moment, of course, Bartholemew doffs the 500th hat and finally stands properly bare-headed before his monarch. That he and his family become rich because of the jewels which encrust the last 300 hats or so is nice, but the feeling the child is left with is a cold and sweaty perception of disaster barely averted. Seuss wisely never attempts an explanation of all those hats; they are simply there, like the fence you didn't see and thus crashed into while riding your bike. It's okay, the story says, you're not the only one. Sometimes these things just happen. They're terrible, but at least you're not the only one who ever got struck by lightning.
*The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: This is a much longer work, but you will be surprised at the continuing interest young children consistently show in this story. Tom Sawyer is Mark Twain at his sunniest and warmest . . . but many of the things children fear and hate are here as well, and they respond to them. They recognize things in Tom they don't like about themselves: Tom's deceit in the matter of the Bible verse cards, his selfish desire to hear himself praised at his own funeral before allowing his grieving Aunt Polly to know he's still alive, his nearly constant lying. Twain accurately reflects back to his young readers and listeners their fear of bad people; there are few scarier creatures in fiction than Injun Joe. He also speaks to childrens' fears of being lost. Tom and Becky are miraculously saved, but the child is not spared the ultimate results; Injun Joe is discovered dead of starvation behind the rock which has been rolled in front of the cave's entrance, the corpses of the small animals he has caught and eaten still around him, the penknife with which he has made a pitiful attempt to dig himself out still in one hand.
WHEN YOU FINISH reading your child or children such a story, you must talk about it if the child wants to. He or she may only want to be left alone to think about it. I've suggested one leading question ("That was weird, wasn't it?") that is very general. The child may or may not respond. If not, you can get a little more specific -- "What was your best part?" Never, never, never "What was your scariest part?" This is something the child must tell you, not vice-versa. And if she responds to the "best part" question, the answer will almost always be the answer to the question you mustn't ask.
Children need make-believe fears in their lives. They understand that there are real boogeymen out there as well as -- and sometimes better than -- their parents.