There are some things that we love as children that, when we grow up, don’t look so good in retrospect. Garfield, to name one. I thought it was hilarious as a child, but reading it today, well, you’ve heard of Garfield Minus Garfield, right? Calvin & Hobbes, on the other hand, never gets old. Roald Dahl, for that matter, still amuses me, largely thanks to his raunchy sense of humor and the gleeful nastiness that permeates all but a few of his stories. Dahl characters are either completely lovable or utterly loathsome. There is no one in between.
I think children are smarter than we acknowledge. In his interview with Stephen Colbert, Maurice Sendak said that children are quite complex. One of his books has been banned because it depicts a dreaming boy (gasp!) in the nude. Not that I parade around Times Square naked or anything, but why is nudity so terrifying? It is natural in the most literal sense of the word. Teaching children to be ashamed of their bodies is more harmful than seeing them. I think Maurice Sendak was on to something there. Part of what makes Grimm’s Fairy Tales so enduring is their graphic violence and sinister undertones. Children know how to handle that, to an extent. No, I am not recommending reading them The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as Colbert did. I’m only saying that death and pain are a part of our world, and if we present them to children in storybook form, they might be better equipped to handle the real thing.
There was a time when children’s entertainment was allowed to be scary. These days, it seems pretty sanitized. Did you know that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom got a PG rating? It’s true, although that may have something to do with the PG-13 rating’s not existing at the time. (Last Crusade got a PG-13.) Doom contains a gross-out scene at a banquet and an (in)famous scene in which a man’s beating heart is ripped out of his chest just before he is burned alive. Funny thing is, I don’t remember being traumatized by that scene. I do remember being freaked out by the bit in Last Crusade in which Walter Donovan drinks from the wrong goblet and disintegrates, but when whatshisname’s face was melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, my first thought was, “Cool!” I couldn’t have been older than five or six when I saw that film for the first time. Screening films for children has its uses. I wouldn’t show A Clockwork Orange to a four year-old. Little boys (and possibly little girls as well) tend to straddle the line between being delighted and horrified by the macabre. Some will get nightmares from horror movies. Others would just laugh. Neither one is, in my opinion, an especially healthy response. Horror tends to balance shocks with laughs, but it’s still supposed to be scary. It takes time to learn how to process the works of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe, although it’s good to start at a relatively young age.
Some kids take time to develop taste. Some never do. I liked Shakespeare even when I was too young to really understand what he was talking about. I saw my first plays of his in my early teens (I think). The plots tended to go over my head, but certain scenes stood out. The Falstaff scenes in Henry IV, Part 1. Marc Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar. Children are curious creatures. They tend to learn best while pretending to find the whole thing lame or “gay”. Realizing that has been one of my favorite parts of growing up. In high school, we mocked much of our assigned reading, from Mrs. Dalloway to The Joy Luck Club (or The Joy Ruck Crub, as it was known to some of my less-PC friends.) In retrospect, I think those were pretty good books. Adults had the right idea, in other words. They didn’t ask us what we wanted to read and then take notes. (If they’d done that, we probably would have just read comic books or something.) What matters is that they pushed us. And for every ten people who forgot the books as soon as they no longer had to write papers on them, there was one person who decided that they wanted to learn more.
There is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale mashup musical Into the Woods that I think of when people try to coddle children. After being cut out of the Big Bad Wolf’s stomach, Red Riding Hood reflects, “Although scary is exciting, nice is different than good.” Children can’t learn if we don’t let them make mistakes. They must not be taught that life is no more consequential than a cartoon. What will we say to them when something tragic and inexplicable happens right in front of them? What will they tell their children when the same thing happens to them? I don’t know. I don’t plan on having children. All I know is that no matter how carefully you plan it, taking a step outside of your parents’ home and trying to make one for yourself is always a leap of faith. We must be prepared to take that leap with our children. We can shelter them if we like. But they will never stop learning.