In my last post, I argued that pre-adolescent children need stories that speak directly to their distinctive emotional needs and crises, and not just to those of teenagers and adults. This should be a relatively obvious point, yet it is often overlooked by media companies beholden to the marketing ploy of “family entertainment” (where the visuals are all for the young children, and the story, characters, dialogue, and humor are all for the benefit of adults and older siblings). In doing so, these companies are engaging in a behavior that Bettelheim thinks will mar any good kids story, and which children themselves recognize immediately as duplicitous: that of “winking at the adults over the heads of the children.” (p. 168).
In emphasizing the distinctiveness of the psychology of young children and the stories that are appropriate for them, however, I want to make clear what I am not saying. The difference between children and adolescents is not that the former live some idyllic mental life, or that they are free of deep inner conflict and turmoil. They are certainly not. The difference is that children necessarily process their inner conflicts in distinctive ways, and age-appropriate stories are needed to help them do so. This is the lesson I take from Bruno Bettelheim’s work.
Bettelheim’s discussion of the content of children’s inner conflicts may have us raising skeptical eyebrows, laced with Freudianisms as it is. When he gets started on “oedipal conflict” and “the oral stage” we roll our eyes-- we groan every time there’s a “key” or a “lock” mentioned in a fairy tale because we know what’s coming next. Such passages leave the same impression of cliché and second-hand thinking imparted by all private jargons and ideological lingoes.
If we read somewhat more empathetically, however, we can see that Bettelheim is making points with this terminology that should be uncontroversial. Mostly these points amount to the single observation that children are full of intense and deeply ambivalent feelings about their parents, their other family members, and the world. They tend to move jarringly between emotional extremes, with very little time for transition—a product of what George Eliot called the child's “strangely perspectiveless conception of life.” They may love their parents and siblings and yet feel fierce hatred and jealousy toward them in at a moment's notice. It is not only the strength of these feelings and their mercurial character that makes the child's psychology distinctive-- it is also the fact that children tend to experience their emotions as something that happens to them, as if from outside, rather than as something they do. This can render these emotions quite terrifying. The task of age-appropriate stories is, first of all, to validate these feelings—to provide reassurance that they are normal and human and unavoidable-- and thereby reduce the fear associated with them.
This, thankfully, has become conventional wisdom among a certain type of parent or educator, but it would not have been for most of human history. Societies and moral teachers in the past tended to assume that children ought first to learn to restrain themselves when confronted with destructive impulses. The task of validating these impulses, if it came at all, would come only after the more basic task of mastering them had been completed. This is indeed a more intuitive way of approaching the problem, and no doubt a more effective one among adults capable of self-mastery. For this reason, most religious moral instruction throughout history has focused almost exclusively on commanding self-restraint, and very little on providing reassurance about human imperfections.
Such religious injunctions about self-restraint are important when they concern negative actions, but taken as they often are in the absence of any validation of negative emotions, they can be profoundly damaging, especially to children. If one is only ever exposed to “thou shalt nots,” especially when one is young, then thou shalt have a very impoverished moral life.
An exclusive emphasis on self-restraint overlooks two absolutely critical distinctions which all people must learn to make, however subconsciously, if they are to develop into healthy individuals capable of forming loving relationships. The first distinction is that between what we feel and what we do with our feelings. The second concerns the difference between two forms of self-assertion: one in which we assert our individualities and distinctive personalities in ways that make for mutually satisfying relationships with other people; and a second, in which we assert ourselves in destructive and hurtful ways, in quest of our exclusive gratification.
The neglect of these distinctions in religious teachings often conveys to people who hear them (especially children) the idea that one’s feelings are wrong or unnatural, and that self-assertion is inherently wicked, regardless of the form it takes. They will inhabit the world William Blake depicts in “The Garden of Love”: “And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door; […] / And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.”
Obviously, a religious ethic of self-restraint is not incompatible with a recognition of the two crucial distinctions I listed above. But neither does it lend them any heed, internally, so it must call in other cultural resources to do the work of reassurance. This probably accounts for why a folk culture has always sprung up in Christian societies. Folk traditions often counteract in many respects the lopsided moral emphases of official church doctrine-- most often by means of folk tales, which validate the negative and destructive emotions we all have, even as they help us to eventually bring them under control by doing so. Throughout most of European history, one might argue, the church and this folk culture tacitly accepted one another-- maybe even approved, on some level, the distinctive role each played in providing for a full moral education.
With the coming of the late medieval Inquisition, however, and then with the more extreme sects of the Reformation, this delicate balance was upset, and the tacit peace between religion and folk culture was violated. It was in Puritan New England, especially, that the destructive power of the clergy’s one-sided self-restraint ethic was – ironically – most unleashed. It was here that religious teachers went furthest in their quest to stamp out the validating power of folk tales -- with psychologically devastating consequences. For unrelated research for a course, I have recently been dipping into Philip Greven’s Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment. The author quotes from various Puritan Divines on the subject of child-rearing in the 17th century and its not a pretty picture. Everywhere in their writings we encounter the idea that the chief task of the parent is to “break the will” of the child—especially her or his “self-will” and “natural pride.”
One might think this point about Purtian Divinies is of limited interest and relevance here, given that the 17th century was a long time ago, but Greven goes on to quote various 20th century fundamentalist and evangelical writers on the subject of raising children who say essentially the exact same things as the Puritan writers, controlling only for spelling and shifts in vocabulary. Greven suggests that the ghosts of Puritanism are still very much with us. There is an important lesson in this not to confuse what we and our immediate acquaintances tend to think with what “everyone now knows.” Greven’s book, I am sure, sold far fewer copies than the evangelical parenting manuals he quotes.
Telling the child that her “self-will” is evil is a toxic message. For one thing, the emphasis on “will” elides from the outset any distinction we might make between feeling a desire to do something and the act itself. The message to children is that feeling temporary hatred or anger toward their parents is more or less the same thing as acting out violent acts against them. Children are already secretly prone to think this is the case—the very last thing they need is to have this terrible suspicion confirmed. Bettelheim makes clear that young kids for the most part understand emotion solely through action. As he points out in his discussion of Cinderella, the Brothers Grimm never tell us that “Aschenputtel” (as she is called in their version) feels sad or mourns or is dejected—they simply write that she “sat down and cried.” The child intuitively regards crying and sadness as equivalent—the feeling is the action. So too, as Bettelheim points out, the child feels unreasoning guilt about the violent and angry feelings she may harbor toward parents and siblings and friends, because she doesn’t yet understand the full distinction between feeling a certain way and deciding what to do with those feelings. Being taught that to have the mere will to sin is the real evil, and not the actual commission or attempted commission, is bound to reinforce the child’s deadly moral confusion on this point.
What the child desperately needs to hear, by contrast, is that negative emotions are human and unavoidable—and that the parent fully condones the presence of those emotions. This is something that the tales produced by folk culture helped children to hear for centuries, before small-minded Puritans tried to chase them out of the temple.
So far, what I am saying and what I am drawing from Bettelheim no doubt conforms to what most liberal parents and educators already think. Yawn. However, Bettelheim draws a second crucial lesson from fairy tales that is more upsetting to liberal parenting assumptions, and I will explore that lesson in the latter half of this post.
I said above that children need reassurance that their inner conflicts are normal and that their parents approve of them having negative emotions. Many liberal parents probably take from this the moral that they ought to have more “frank discussions” with their children about their feelings, in which they explain to them directly some of the key distinctions listed above.
But Bettelheim thinks this is entirely the wrong approach-- and as much as he finds in the course of his book that he must defend folk tales from the moralistic critics of yesteryear and the lopsided ethic of “restraint,” he finds even more, it would seem, that he has to defend them against liberal parents who worry that they misrepresent “real life” and interfere with the "frankness" and direct explanations that children really need.
What such parents often find misleading and wanting in "frankness" about fairy tales are their simplistic representations of good and evil, on the one hand, and their indirect and symbolic way of dealing with sex on the other. If kids need to understand that their feelings are normal and legitimate, these parents reason, better to sit them down and tell them so flat out than to confuse them with stories that only suggest such knowledge circumspectly.
The trouble with this, says Bettelheim, is that children can’t simply be made to understand through rational “explanation” that their feelings and their actions are not the same thing. Kids will continue to perceive them as one and the same internally, and one cannot rush the process whereby their minds will eventually escape this reduction. Since they are developmentally unprepared to make a distinction between feeling and action, then telling them in any direct form at all that they have angry or aggressive feelings – even if this is followed up immediately by the words “And that’s normal”—will still feed their sense of overpowering guilt.
The way to have children’s negative emotions properly validated, says Bettelheim, is to have these emotions “externalized” onto one-dimensional villains. The reason why “Cinderella,” say, helps children to process their real-world feelings of sibling rivalry, is that it does not in fact mirror reality: it says to the child in effect: I don’t actually have violent or negative desires—I simply feel the way I do because of the evil stepmother and the evil stepsisters and all they put me through. And furthermore, because it is “just a story,” the child projects her anger onto the villains, without this creating guilt that she might be betraying her real-life parents or siblings by doing so.
Most adults recognize that in real-life, the villains are not so clearly drawn. We are often the source of our own problems, to some extent, and good and evil coexist uneasily in our own behavior and intentions. Liberal parents are no doubt uncomfortable, therefore, with seeming to hide their knowledge about the complexities of good and evil from their children. They probably are most uncomfortable of all, for this reason, with the way in which fairy tale villains are violently punished at the end of most stories (the witch in “Snow White,” for instance, is made to wear red hot shoes and dance until she drops dead-- a detail left out of most modern retellings). I tend to share the discomfort of such parents, especially as someone who is deeply opposed to "retribution" as a model of justice.
Bettelheim does not dismiss such concerns, but he argues that for children to eventually reach a mature moral attitude which transcends revenge and makes room for forgiveness and reconciliation, they must first pass through a developmental stage in which evil is given a very concrete form-- and is eliminated fully in the course of the story, as symbolized by the death of the villain. Children don’t think of the witch’s demise as the death of a full person, says Bettelheim, but as the mastery of whatever aggression and destructive impulse at first set the plot in motion.
I tend, with some continued hesitation, to agree with him. One could ask, for instance, what would happen in the Lion King, say, if Scar did not die at the end of the story through the consequences of his own evil deeds? One of the few alternatives would be to have him relegated to some inferior position, forced to cringe and toady his way through life as punishment for his actions. To adults, this seems a less “cruel” resolution to the story, and in real life no doubt it would be. But to the child for whom the death of a villain is simply its elimination, continued existence on such terms would be a much worse fate for Scar—and would probably make him seem to them more like a real, and quite pitiable, person, rather than a manifestation of evil.
Bettelheim makes another point that is bound to unsettle some liberal parents: it has to do with the way kids learn about sex. This is often where liberal “frankness” is seen as most essential, by many contemporary parents, because in the absence of real information, it is thought, children are likely to come up with strange and frightening delusions about sex that do them a great deal of harm.
Bettelheim would not fully discount the wisdom of this, but he insists that the important message to be learned from sex education (that sexuality and the feelings it arouses are normal and potentially positive features of life, if acted on in healthy ways), is better conveyed to children symbolically and indirectly rather than didactically, at least before the child reaches puberty. This is so because the child has deeply ambivalent feelings about sexuality, as she does about most things in life, and needs to have the negative aspects of these feelings given some symbolic validation if she is ever going to recognize the potential for positive aspects as well.
The well-intentioned liberal educator who explains rationally that sex is “natural” risks alienating the child, who in fact views sex as grotesque and senseless. Says Bettelheim: “Modern sex education tries to teach that sex is normal […] But since it does not start from an understanding that the child may find sex disgusting, and that this viewpoint has an important protective function for the child, [it] fails to carry conviction for him.” (291). Fairy tales such as the “Frog Prince,” by contrast, do a better job, says Bettelheim, of symbolically lending credence to children’s ambivalent feelings. They validate the child’s immediate repugnance -- in this case of the frog-- as natural, while also holding out hope to her or him that the feeling of disgust will, in the process of healthy maturation, eventually be replaced by a positive valuation of sex with the right person.
I’m not entirely sure how far I’m willing to follow Bettelheim in this, or how far he wants to take us. While the point he raises against modern approaches is a compelling one, it seems equally pernicious to try to teach sex ed through fairy tales. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that the subconscious Priapic imagery of “Jack and the Bean Stalk” can prepare a boy for his first nocturnal emission, or that hearing about three drops of blood spilled on a white handkerchief in a fairy tale will, on its own, make menstrual bleeding seem “natural” to a girl the first time it happens. Bettelheim doesn’t quite argue that they will either, but he seems to indicate a preference for a form of sexual education that never refers explicitly to sexual acts or to the physiological changes of puberty. One suspects his feelings in this regard grow out of a psychoanalytic training that attributed much more potency to “symbols” and “dream images” than we now think they deserve.
On the other hand, Bettelheim has a point that children need to have their negative feelings toward sex validated, just as their eventual progress toward a positive understanding of sex must also be validated . Moreover, he is right that sitting down and explaining such things to children directly is often bound to fail in precisely the way that trying to explain the distinction between feeling and action is ineffective.
You cannot dictate such things to children when they are not developmentally prepared to accept them.
It would seem then that the same basic deficiency is shared by both the liberal and the authoritarian/evangelical parenting styles we’ve been discussing so far. In short, neither ideology of parenting is willing to let itself be guided sufficiently by the development of the child’s own mind, or to provide validation to what the child actually feels, rather than to what the adult thinks he or she should feel. They both, at their worst, impose didactic instructions (or “explanations”) from above, which – regardless of the intent behind them – convey to the child the impression that her feelings must be wrong or perverse, because they are so often at odds with these instructions.
This prevents her from gradually developing toward the two basic distinctions we all have to make in life, if we are going to be healthy and loving individuals: the distinction between feeling and action, and the distinction between creative and destructive manifestations of self-will. The first I discussed in detail above. The child begins to make it fairly early in the development process, and probably even with a one-sided education about the evilness of “will” she will eventually come to recognize it in some form.
The same cannot be said, however, of the second distinction. I would argue that if the child is prevented from ever making this distinction, by a parenting style that tries to tell her that all forms of “self-will” and self-assertion are evil, she may never fully develop it, with damaging consequences.
This is because the child who is told that “self-assertion is evil” comes to recognize two things as she matures. The first is that everything she has reason to value in her life involves some sort of self-assertion: including her creative endeavors, her quest for meaning, and the positive relationships she establishes with other people. She would ordinarily take legitimate pride in these things, and feel validated and encouraged by them to engage in life – but these very facts instead result in guilt for her, because of her warped moral training.
The second thing she recognizes is that her authoritarian parents, who are attempting to “break her will” in line with evangelical bromides, are asserting by so doing their own self-wills. She therefore concludes that her parents are hypocrites—and probably, too, that all morality is hypocritical. Because self-will appears inevitable, she concludes, then the question is simply whose will is going to win out. This leads to the view that life is purely a theater of conflict in which some must win and some must lose. There can be no self-assertion that does not simultaneously do harm to others, and no self-abnegation that does not simply empower others to do harm to oneself.
This leads to a profoundly despairing attitude to life. It serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy as well, in that the person whose moral training has led her to think this way will only ever be capable of interacting with people as potential competitors and as disembodied wills that clash with her own. She has been taught that there are no ways of asserting oneself and gaining legitimate pride and respect in life that do not take away these things from others, which means she has been taught there is no such thing as a mutually satisfying relationship between people.
This is probably the most crippling thing any parent could teach a child, because it prevents her or him from ever learning how to love. The capacity to love depends on the hope that one can find a relationship with another person that is not simply a political contest of wills in which one party gains temporary satisfaction from another. "Will-breaking" parents do not offer this hope—they crush it by their implicit assertion that their own selfhood can only be realized by the extinction of their child’s.
If there’s one thing that folk culture and the tales it tells have always done, by contrast to Puritanism, it is to offer hope. This is the gift that stories can still make to children: they can offer hope that love is real and that one’s true feelings and the assertion of one’s own self are not detrimental to it-- that they can, in fact, help one to find it.
I have been talking about stories in this post, but of course, the stories we tell in our society can only do so much. Ideally, these stories only reinforce what the child already sees modeled for him by his parents or guardians and other family members.
But we can’t always rely on this. In deeply unequal and competitive societies like ours, which give children plenty of reasons to fear that life is a “zero-sum game,” and in which family bonds are loosening and snapping for so many people, the need for the message of folk tales is great indeed. Yet it is precisely in these sorts of societies that folk culture seems to be on the ropes. Whatever else this tells us, it should certainly make clear that our society's biggest tellers of stories to children-- like Walt Disney Studios-- have no slight or trivial responsibility.