WAIT WAIT WAIT I know it sounds bad, but bear with me a moment. I don’t mean PHYSICALLY traumatizing your children, I only mean psychologically traumatize them! Alright so that’s not better. But seriously, bear with me on this.
Lately I’ve been trading childhood stories with some friends of mine. You know, buddies. Pals. Amigos. I have some of those. Anyway, more and more I’ve been realizing that mine and my sister’s upbringing may have been… unorthodox, to say the least. That’s a long story, but there’s one aspect in particular that I want to focus on, and that aspect happens to be stories themselves.
Every child that’s raised in a semi-decent home gets told stories. Usually, the stories parents choose are tailored specifically for children. But not my parents, no no. They decided that any story could be a children’s story simply by virtue of being told to a child. Case in point: Greek mythology. Most everyone knows that most every Greek myth ends in horror or tragedy or cruel irony and are perhaps the farthest thing from Disney movies as you can get.
Let’s sidebar for a moment so I can really impress this upon you. Since I brought up Disney, we’ll stick with it for a moment. Disney’s Hercules follows the son of Zeus and Hera, who gets tricked by Hades, as he falls in love with a human named Meg and battles the Titans. It ends with him saving the world and getting the girl and learning what it means to truly ~be a hero~ and so on and so forth. The true story of Hercules is such: Zeus (per usual) slept with a mortal woman who bore a child. Zeus knew that Hera, his freakin’ wife, wouldn’t be happy, so he had the baby named Herakles to honor her. But Hera was not pleased. She plagued his youth with multiple attempts on his life, then finally, when he was married with three children, she sent a madness upon him that drove him to murder his wife and children. All his adventures? Penance for his crimes. His life ended when his second wife, tricked by a centaur, gave him a poisoned tunic that burned him so badly that he leapt into a fire.
Take a guess as to which story my parents read to us.
All our books of myths were the real deal, no kiddie stuff. Atalanta? Turned into a lion after her wedding for failing to pay homage to Aphrodite. Narcissus? Wasted away staring at himself. Niobe? Watched all fourteen of her children murdered in front of her because she slighted Leto. Phaeton? That boy was blasted out of the sky because his stupidity was going to destroy the world.
Thing is, little baby me didn’t register this as being strange. This was just how stories were, in my mind. It wasn’t until recently that I found out that this isn’t what one would generally call normal. Most kids get told stories where the endings are happy and the villains don’t matter.
So what? What’s the difference? Well, I think, at least, that this has affected my development. I skipped the disillusionment of finding out that Santa’s not real and not every story has a happy ending because I never lived under either of those illusions. (In our house, Santa was ~part of the spirit of Christmas~ not an actual person.) I don’t think I’m jaded or pessimistic because of it; in fact I think it’s the opposite. Instead of going through the ups and downs of believing in something then losing that faith, I’m able to start on a clean slate and work my way up, so to speak. If I start with the assumption that things will end badly, then there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s more important for kids to grow up happy and believing in happy endings. There’s always time for them to learn later, right? But I would’t say I was an unhappy child. You couldn’t even pin my current mental issues on this part of my upbringing, because my sister grew up the same way and she’s pretty functional. So what if she ate the storybooks? (That’s right, it’s call out time.)
Anyway, I’m not going to pretend that I know the best way to raise a child. I’m still half a child myself. But I think there’s something to be said about not lying to your children. Kids are smarter than they often get credit for, and they can handle more than you’d think. Just look at how dark some kids movies are! They can take it! And there’s no loss of childhood wonder, just a redirection of it. Maybe I’m just a little nuts for looking at a tree and thinking about how it might be a nymph in disguise. But I think we ought to give kids more credit than they’re getting. They’re not stupid, and I don’t think they’re done any favors by hiding reality from them. Bad things happen, they’re gonna learn sometime or other. May as well give them as much time as possible to figure out how to deal with it, and how to make your own happy ending.
PS: The only people who ever got happy endings in the myths were people who acted selflessly and without pride, putting others first and working hard. Frankly, if you ask me, that’s a much better lesson than just “be nice”.
PPS: Case in point, Admetus and Alcestis got a happy ending because they were literally willing to die for each other. Well, that and Herakles wrestled the physical embodiment of Death himself so they could live. See, it’s not all bad. Just punch Death in the face and everything will be fine. (Terms and Conditions may apply.)