Children and Books

boy who cried wolf

For someone without children, I feel incredibly invested in both the education and the raising of children.  I think it’s more than a realization that a good society depends on “well-behaved”, educated children (who will hopefully become “well-behaved”, educated adults).  And it’s more than the Hillary Clinton thing “it takes a village.”  I guess I must find educating and raising children to be intensely interesting.  One issue about children raises other issues, all of them tricky and hard to navigate!

One interesting issue is what to read to children?  An article in the NY Times (yes, I read a lot of the NY Times) by Annie Murphy Paul entitled “And the Moral of the Story is:  Keep it Positive” says that according to a recent study, children learn the moral of a story better if it is overall a positive story.  This study had children listen to the noise of a hidden toy and were told not to peek at the toy.  Then the research assistant left the room.  Invariably, the children (ages 3-7) did peek at the toy.  Then the research assistant would return to the room and read to the children one of three stories – “The Boy who Cried Wolf”, “Pinocchio”, or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.”  After the story, the children were asked if they peeked at the toy.  If the George Washington story was read to them, they were honest.  If one of the other two stories were read to them, they didn’t tell the truth.  So the conclusion the researchers came to was that because the George Washington story ends happily (he doesn’t die as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or grow a long nose as in “Pinocchio”), children will learn honesty through only positive stories.

Studies like these worry me.  What message are we sending to parents?  That only “happy happy” stories should be read to children?  What a tragedy that would be.  Children, I believe, should hear and read as many stories as possible – even the grisly Grimm stories and others like it.  They are all good for them.  I know my sister, who is the mother of my three year-old nephew, complains about the insipid “Thomas the Train” stories.  So what if they are “positive”.  They’re stupid, and children will be unlikely to learn anything from them.  To a great extent, I think what children learn from stories is still a great mystery.  Even if only positively framed stories really are the only ones to teach a lesson (and remember that study was a pressure-cooker of an atmosphere), we don’t know what other good things kids may be gaining from stories.

I attended a writers conference two weeks ago and was very disheartened to hear  that children’s picture book writers are now required to cut down the amount of words in their stories to a mere 500.  It used to be acceptable to have double that.  Now, this writer explained to me, the art work is supposed to be half the story.  I love good art work, but words are so important for children (and everyone).  Why are we getting fewer of them?  Another recent study (and I don’t know if I can find it again – sorry) said that the more words a child is exposed to, the better he or she will do in school, and presumably, in life.

But I suppose I’m digressing a bit from the first study.  I believe children should be exposed to all kinds of stories – not necessarily Stephen King (unless they can pick it up and get something from it on their own) of course, but “positive” stories as well as not-so-positive stories.  What are fairy tales, after all, if not about the horrors of life?  And I’m not talking about Disney.  In the original Cinderella, the stepsisters lop off their toe and heel in order to fit in to the shoe, and then are punished by having birds peck out their eyes.  Cinderella doesn’t forgive them, as she does in the Perrault version, and in Disney’s version.  Life is tough.  Hopefully it isn’t this tough for most children!  I don’t know what children will learn from this grim story.  Maybe nothing.  But I don’t think we should second guess great or classic literature because it doesn’t seem to be “positive”.





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