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Where are the parents in Children’s literature?

Books teach kids big-picture ways of looking at the world, but what do they say about parents?

“It is, of course, traditional in children’s literature to get rid of the parents.” - Anthony Horowitz.

If you think that entertainment is the purpose of children’s literature, you’re only partly right. Children’s books and movies are a whole lot more than mere entertainment.

Expanding imagination and the roles parents play

In children’s literature we find a training ground for adult choices hidden in magical adventures and fantastical places. Kids wear the main characters of a story like goggles, stepping into fictional worlds through the eyes of Harry Potter or Thea Stilton, Nancy Drew or Percy Jackson.

In mysteries they learn how to read and process clues. In adventures they learn how to respond to challenges. Children’s stories are an experimental lab; a safe place to try on different roles, and think through the questions that begin, “What would you do if…?”This is a big reason why, if you’ve watched a children’s movie or read a children’s book, the parents are most likely in one of three places:

  1. Completely absent or dead.
  2. Present but evil, unhelpful or interfering.
  3. Irrelevant or bumbling fools.

Kids rule, OK?

This is no mistake. Children’s literature needs children to be in charge, which means authority figures are present only to advise, to be rebelled against, or to block the hero’s path to greatness. Parents can be wise, but it’s through their mistakes (as in Finding Dory, or Inside Out) the main character learns to stand on their own two feet and save themselves.

This is one reason why parents would be wise to sit alongside their kids when they’re entering these imaginary worlds. Not because they’re evil or dangerous. But while your children are sitting quietly on the lounge, immersed in a book, they’re also being taught big-picture ways of looking at the world. Something that was traditionally a parent’s job, and something we can talk about together.
 

What we consume shapes us

When we’re being entertained, we’re also being shaped. We might be watching a movie about a bunch of animals singing, but we’re also being taught about human value, gender, self-worth and perseverance in the face of trials. We might think we were giving our kids a fairytale to read, but we’re actually absorbing little messages about male and female identity and desired behaviour and life goals.

Why we should watch and read with our kids

There are pitfalls. For example, back when Disney’s Tangled was released, there was an outcry because the mother figure was not only the villain, she explained Rapunzel’s imprisonment using phrases like “I only want to keep you safe” (“Mother knows best”, indeed). According to the arguments, children were being subliminally primed to view their parents with suspicion. This may or may not be true. But our entertainment is often littered with overt messages like: ‘follow your dreams’, ’show your true colours’, ‘listen to your heart'.

For Christian parents, it’s good to be aware of the potential pitfalls of our children’s viewing and reading. Reading with them (or at least using online synopses) can help us to have good, open discussions.

Helping our kids develop cultural literacy

But that’s where the potential comes in. We can help our kids to learn cultural literacy by examining the subtle messages delivered by their entertainment.

Here are some possible areas of discussion:

  • ‘Creation identity’ - where do the characters fit in this world? What makes a person (or fish or pig or alien) important? What is their purpose (or goal) in life?
  • ‘Fall and sin’ - what’s wrong with this world? What’s the big problem they face? Who’s the ‘bad guy’? What does that tell us about people in general?
  • ‘Redemption’ - how can they fix it? What (or who) saves them?
  • ‘New Creation’ - what’s the ‘happy ending’ here? What picture of perfection/fulfilment/happiness does the movie leave us with?

Kids often love to talk about what they’ve just watched or read, and these questions can help you to dive more deeply into the messages they’ve absorbed. You may also have noticed that these headings fit the ‘big story’ of the Bible. Many of the stories we absorb are parodies, imitations or distortions of the one Big Story that God is still telling. ‘Something has gone wrong with this world,’ they say, ‘and this is how it will be fixed.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting a heavy debrief after every movie or picture book, asking kids for a 2000 word essay on the theologies found in Sing. But if “follow your heart” is the key take-home message from this movie we’ve just watched, then what does that mean for Christians who believe our hearts are broken and selfish? If this book is telling us that only stupid or nasty people believe in God, what does that mean for the Christian family that wants to follow Him? If that series reduces divine power to an impersonal force, how does that relate to the God who said “I AM”?

Engaging with your kids’ culture

Great parents may be absent from our kids’ books and movies. But that doesn’t mean we have to be. We can be discerning about the books and movies our kids watch, and sometimes it’s important to just say, “No.” But it’s an even more valuable gift to help our kids be aware of the messages they consume, and to help them to understand why sometimes, those messages are a weak imitation of the great big story God wants to tell us all.

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