17 May 2010

Level 1 Prohibitory Monsters - Do You or Don't You?

Lately, I've been reading a lot of Terry Pratchett. So much so, in fact, that I'm sort of wondering myself when I'll pick up a different genre again. I suppose it has a lot to do of being immersed so deeply in the rather humorless work of the government grind - I need someplace fun and satirical to escape to when I read. Yet I find that, not only is Terry Pratchett funny, he's also extraordinarily intelligent. So I was rather excited to get my mitts on a copy of The Folklore of Discworld, wherein he and a British folklorist, Jacqueline Simpson, explore the myths of Discworld and Earth (and the remarkable cross between the two worlds). It's both entertaining and educational - and being in the throes now of a time in our daughter's life where there can be no doubt that Magic and Monsters exist, one section gave me a lot of pause to think and wonder.

In several chapters, particularly on races (dwarves and trolls featuring highly here), Elves, and the Nac Mac Feegle, our own ancient myths and legends through the years are dissected - and discussed in terms
 of Then and Now.

So, how did you grow up? Did you know the real Brothers Grimm as I did? Or thought I did until I learned the real, original version of Cinderella (according to Jacqueline Simpson in the book, her "slipper" was actually a fur glove. wink wink). My Opa, a man from The Olde Worlde (born in 1902, thank you) ensured that I was blessed with a beautiful, gilt edged Brothers Grimm book of fairy tales - and in retrospect, they were not nice. I knew Baba Yaga and her hut that spun on chicken legs, along with her flying mortar or, sometimes, cauldron. Therefore, I knew that witches were evil. I knew about murdering stepmothers, lands in the well, and that kissing frogs yielded princes.

But I never knew about Jenny Greenteeth in any local ponds, nor did I know of any picts or elves waiting to carry me away if I strayed from the beaten path in the woods where I played so often. There was no Rawhead and Bloody Bones (outside of Hollywood) to eat me up should I answer the door while my parents were out.

All of these legends, monsters that Terry Pratchett dubs "prohibitory" (for by now obvious reasons, I'm sure), didn't exist. The context of the Brothers Grimm's stories were lost on me and so they didn't inspire much by way of fear.

Instead, I was raised on a steady diet of monsters of a different sort: Strangers. Beware the stranger who offers you candy! Run from the stranger who asks if you want to see his or her puppy. Strangers steal little children and torture and murder them. And somehow, this terrified me more than a thousand Baba Yagas flying through the night in her mortar, in search of children out past to dark to eat alive. Because these Prohibitory Monsters were just...people. There was nothing magical about them. There was no pact with a devil, no supernatural powers. They were you and me, with a deep, dark, horrible twist.

It worked for a while. I remember being nearly paralyzed with fear every time I saw a man with a moustache and mirrored sunglasses (somehow, that got equated in my mind to KIDNAPPERS). But I remember, too, the whispered, secretive warnings on the playground about witches in the woods, and fairies in the flowers. Without any adult ever telling me, without even my beloved Brothers Grimm, I knew about the things that apparently, adults did not. I knew about trolls that turned to stone during the day, about vampires at night. Werewolves, leprechauns, djinn...I knew and believed in them too.

That tells me that somewhere close by, someone's mother or more likely than not, grandmother, was keeping the Lore alive and passing on their own prohibitory warnings about what will eat naughty young children alive if they didn't go straight to bed and, like a corporate safety brief, that knowledge was passed along in the sandbox lest the other potentially (and often actually) naughty little children were innocently unaware.

Now it's our turn. While the Mommy Blogs and parenting forums come alive at Christmas with debates and posts about the veracity of "lying" to children about Santa Claus, and this inevitably leads to discussion about the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and all of the other tales we have no compunction about feeding our little ones - do we maintain our children in, as Pratchett (sarcastically) calls it, "A state of wholesome terror"? And why not? Or has our idea of what a monster really is (the paedophile lurking in the bushes - a good myth if ever there was one as we know that the majority of childhood sexual abuse is doled out by trusted and known adults, monsters to be sure) changed so dramatically that we no longer see a need for prohibitory monsters, frighteners, of not long ago?

It's one of those things I find interesting - and I wonder how we'll handle it in the end. Whatever monsters are to A right now (and we aren't clear on this yet ourselves), I'd prefer she continue to think of them as mostly friends...but I don't want her to live in total fear, as I and a few of my friends did, of not just the witches under the bed but also the neighbor two houses down, or the poor bastard who really does just need directions 'round the block. On the other hand, simple reasoning like, "because you'll drown" ends up not being so simple sometimes, especially in the Age of Magic (e.g. toddlerhood) and I wonder if precautionary messages do require a little bit of the ol' Baba Yaga magic in them to hammer the point home.

And you? What creatures did you grow up with? Trolls or ordinary men and women? How do you reason with your small children now?


Anonymous said...

Hey! I get this one with amazing clarity. S reads the real Brothers Grimm also, thank you very much. I always remember both S and N saying hi to every person they met, often from the seat in a grocery cart. We were in a garden store in Osterville, MA (not a particularly seedy part of the world---whoa, good pun without intention) and they were perhaps 2 and 4 and they both chimed a "HI!" to a women looking at petunias. She snapped at me that they should be taught not to speak to strangers. I was a little dumbfounded. Why not? They are 2 and 4...not yet wandering the woods by themselves or driving or even walking to school alone. I or any other adult watching them was not ever going to leave them alone in public. I was supposed to make them terrified at 2 and 4? Nope. 2 and 4 is for teaching about holding hands, always, as we cross the street, being afraid of cars or bodies of water...that's about the extent of it at 2 and 4. Now, it matters...at 13 and 15 but it's possible to talk in more abstract ways and have them understand. They will still do dumb things, just as we all did, but we talk and they listen. Perhaps, because I didn't frighten the heck out of them when they were 2 and 4. XOXOX W

Anonymous said...

Hi, SKL here again. I don't water stuff down much for my kids. We haven't started reading the original Grimm translations yet, but it won't be long. I know that their preschool also tells them "scary" fairy tales. We first watched the Wizard of Oz right around their 2nd birthdays, and gradually introduced other family movies with scary / painful parts, most recently Jesus Christ Superstar (they are 3). I do watch with them so that we can talk about things that are over their heads. They know that if they get in the path of a moving car they could be crushed and severely hurt or killed. And they know they shouldn't go out alone after dusk because the coyotes and raccoons could attack them. So they are exposed to both the real scary stuff and the fake scary stuff. They don't seem particularly messed up.

About strangers, I have not taught them to be afraid. They are just getting to the point where I can leave them at a distance but still within my view. It's time to start teaching them those street-smart basics, and I plan to be very specific - they should not be afraid of people, but beware of certain actions. There are some things they must never do but I won't say it's because someone is going to rape them or whatever. I have not yet formulated the message I will use. Probably that, e.g., if they get in a stranger's car without my knowledge, they might be taken away and I might never see them again. Then again, my father had a terrific story passed down from his dad called Dr. Stockingtoe, which gave lots of graphic reasons why we should not go off with strangers or take candy/gifts, etc.

My kids are in a couple of programs at school that touch on safety (Stretch & Grow) and self-defense (karate with emphasis on how to get away from attacking strangers). I have observed some of the message and it seems OK. My kids are shy around strangers but I don't think they see them as bogeymen.

Phe said...

W: I know it wasn't my own parents so much that instilled the fear of Strangers in me so young (according to my mum, I was much the same as your kids at age 2 - 4, where I'd say hi to EVERYONE), but teachers, other parents and an unfortunate overarching understanding of things I read in the news without being able to understand the full complexity of the story.

But I know Osterville and I have to say that I probably would have taken A away from that experience explaining that she was a witch who needed a good shove into an oven. : )

Phe said...

SKL: We still haven't introduced A to scary family movies like the Wizard of Oz, though I believe I saw it for the first time around this age as well. Right now, her beliefs in monsters came about from a source as yet undiscovered (play skool is claiming innocence in this matter) - but I'm not too upset about it, nor are we necessarily discouraging belief.

How we'll address strangers later on is as yet undiscussed and undecided. We live in a large urban area (as you know) and it may never be an issue. People here tend to ignore one another wholesale. I also wonder how much threat strangers pose these days. The rare occasions where something terrible does happen becomes so very sensationalized that it seems more endemic than it actually is.

The sad truth is that the monsters so many children fear the most are their own parents or close relatives - and often, "stranger abduction" news stories turn out to be covers for atrocities the parent(s) themselves have actually committed.

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