Three months ago, my daughter was driving with my 4-year-old granddaughter in her car seat; the radio was on. Someone started describing a recent horror: A man had locked himself in his house with his two sons, splashed gasoline around and burned all three of them to death.
My daughter quickly turned the station off to protect her 4-year-old from the awful details of the Josh Powell case. My granddaughter pleaded, “Mommy, could I listen to the radio?”
She’d been following it all along, apparently closely. The news was telling her something about the world she was growing up in. Four-year-olds want to figure out the world.
When I was growing up, Howdy Doody was still on TV. When the show came on, we’d sing: “It’s Howdy Doody Time/It isn’t worth a dime./So go to Channel 9,/And watch Frankenstein.”
Many children – not all – are eager to learn about the dark side of life. As parents, we wish they weren’t eager. We wish there weren’t a dark side of life to begin with. But it’s there, and there’s no escaping it.
Maurice Sendak, who died this morning, wrote and illustrated children’s books that addressed dark themes head-on. My favorite is “Where the Wild Things Are,” which recounts Max’s adventures with fanged, clawed, horned Wild Things, which the boy ultimately tames and rules – before sailing home to eat dinner. It’s a whole lot of fun for kids, and the fun part isn’t when he comes home.
I’m reminded of some of the dinosaur books I used to read when I was a kid. They depicted the carnivorous allosaurus and tyrannosaurus as, well, carnivorous. They caught the nice, peace-loving, vegetarian dinosaurs, killed them and ate them raw. Dinosaurs could be like that. Humans can be like that, too, much as we’d like it to be otherwise.
Today, children’s dinosaur books tend to be terribly insipid. The dinosaurs are friendly and happy, always smiling. They don’t eat each other.
Fairy tales have gone in the same direction. Cinderella’s sisters don’t cut off their toes to fit into the glass slippers – though some women in the real world today actually do have toes amputated to fit into glamorous shoes. Ogres and witches are sanitized – though some children have real ogres and witches preying on them, sometimes in their own homes.
At least a few psychologists believe we do children a disservice by trying to shield them completely from stories that show the ugly side of human nature. The idea is that children have real fears and anxieties, and stories let them deal with those apprehensions from a safe distance.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the books without real villains and without something at stake – maybe even life or death – tend to bore kids. Sendak’s monsters had teeth, and they never bored kids.