Why It's Good to Scare Your Kids

Family Matters on 06.03.11
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Image credit: Resident on Earth, used under Creative Commons license.

We were recently Skyping with my daughter's grandparents, when we started to sing "Ring Around The Rosy." We all sang along happily, until we got to the part about "ashes, ashes". Somehow the line had been changed to "upstairs, downstairs" presumably, I think, to not scare kids.

Are We Over Sanitizing Our Culture?

It's true, as a nursery rhyme that has its roots in the bubonic plague outbreak of 1666 that killed 20% of London's population, it's not exactly an upbeat song. And I know that Lilia's grandparents (Mr and Mrs Baby Whisperer) are about the best influence I could imagine on my daughter. Nevertheless, I can't help but get a little nervous about overly sanitizing our children's cultural intake, and protecting them from exposure to any form of upsetting, edgy or even scary stories or news.

I should note that I have a pretty dark sense of humor, a taste for bad horror movies, and an ambition to write the world's first great environmental horror novel (compost-modern horror is a genre that is yet to be fully exploited). I have also been known to dance around to Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath with Lilia, though my wife occasionally has to point out that certain lyrics really aren't appropriate to be repeated to a 19 month old.

Fear Can Be Good to Explore

But I'm not alone. Some of the greatest children's stories ever told have elements of darkness, even scariness, and I can't help feeling that it is not a bad thing. The world is not a perfect place. Bad things happen. Like allowing your kids to explore danger, exposure, in moderation of course, to stories that depict these things - as long as that exposure is put in context by a caring, dependable adult who can talk through what a child is hearing - seems like it may help children to process the real world around them.(Of course that adult should also pay close attention, and not continue reading if a child is visibly disturbed or terrified.)

If I think back to my own childhood, I have fond memories of my mum, who is Finnish, reading Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland to me at a very young age. While I remember being genuinely scared about the threat of a comet destroying beautiful Moomin Valley, I also remember cuddling up to Mum and, to some extent, enjoying that fear in the safe surroundings of a loving adult. (Weirdly, she also used to read us a poem about a frog that ate some yeast and grew so big it swallowed the sun - that really did scare the crap out of me!)

There Are Many Different Kinds of Scary

Ultimately though, the decision is not just as simple as "do I allow my kid to hear scary stories", but rather we also need to think about what stories he or she will hear. I wouldn't, for example, want my child to hear many of the original Grimm fairytales, which have some horrific, macabre, and I find unnecessarily violent imagery. And I've never been a fan of cartoon violence, so was pleased to hear that kids don't really dig it either. Yet I would be delighted if Lilia also finds herself just a little uneasy as she hears about the threat looming over Moominland, or cowers at the thought of the Wicked Witch of the West. (In fact the idea of her watching too much of the Fresh Beat Band scares me a whole lot more.)

It will be a while yet before I sit down with Lilia to watch a decent slasher movie. But I'm not worried if she gets her own little frights from time-to-time. I'm increasingly finding that she tells us what she wants to watch, read, or listen to - and as long as we pay attention to what she finds stimulating and enjoyable, I suspect we should all live happily ever after.

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Tags: Education