Monday, December 20, 2010

So What About that Scary Ghost?

I especially remember my first preschool class. Precious, sweet kids... lots of them, full of energy!  One day we were sitting and reading a familiar fairy tale, and one of the little girls flipped out at the word "witch."  This was a "good witch," mind you, not a scary or evil one.  She wasn't scared, just concerned because she "wasn't allowed to say witch, or to talk about them."  Hmmm... ok.  This was my first encounter with this particular family's standards on what their kids were allowed to hear, see or say. Ghosts, witch, fat, stupid... all were on the "taboo" list.  Wolf in the Three Little Pigs? Nope. "Mommy doesn't want me to see anything scary."  As a teacher, of course you never want to undermine the parent, but it was also getting pretty impossible to read any fairy tale or even describe "same and different" without an alarm bell going off in this little girl's mind (saying "this crayon is fat, and that one is skinny" was what got me into trouble over saying "fat.").  She was a real sweetheart, and it got to the point where she knew if she felt that her mom wouldn't want her hearing something-- say an audio-book kids were listening to in center time-- that she'd just go do something else.  And we made it through the year both unscathed.

I've since thought a lot about her. Don't get me wrong- she was from an amazing, supportive, fun family whose parents were some of my greatest encourager and cheerleaders.  I know her mom had reasons to be so protective of her little eyes and ears, one being her tendency towards bad nightmares.  I wonder, though, if she'd been allowed to experience "frightening" things as frightening instead of as forbidden, and then freely discuss them, if she'd have been better able to deal with her fears.

Children in ages past were expected to confront a lot more fears than ours are.  Have you ever read Grimm's original fairy tales?  Totally gory.  Yuck.  Kids back then usually saw death firsthand; they either lost a grandparent living with them to old age, or a relative to war, plague or an accident.  Certainly they watched animal death regularly as their parents butchered chickens & hogs and hunted fowl and deer.  They lived through natural disasters and actual dangers.  What would they think of our reluctance to let our preschoolers read about monsters?

I've thought about this on and off for the past several years. As parents, is it wise to let our children see, hear, or read about "scary" things?  What does Scripture say about this?  The Bible is plenty full of scary situations-- not from pretend creatures like ghosts and goblins, but from very real-life evil men and angels.  Fear in children is natural.  As G. K. Chesterton put it,
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” 
Some of you might be at this point shaking your heads, thinking "what the heck is she saying? Dragons do NOT exist, and the LAST thing I want is to fill my child's head with a new fear over something that doesn't even exist."  Think about it this way:  to a child, so many things are frightening, most of them involving potential physical harm.  They're scared of stuffed cows, of quick-moving dogs, of strangers, of the dark.  One day they'll outgrow all those fears by bullying or avoiding them;  they'll learn that they are bigger than those things, or that they're so improbable that they don't need to think about them.  But unless they've been taught not just to avoid or bully fears, but to face them, they'll "graduate" to fears of other things-- fear of failure, of rejection, of humiliation, of being alone, of being wrong.  Christ calls us to face those fears head on, and to fight them-- not in our own strength, but with His.  We are to stare them down and cry "you can do everything you threaten me and more, but you cannot take my Father's love!"  His love sets us free from fear. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." (1 Jn. 4:18)

There are other things to fear in this world-- wicked men with evil thoughts, wild animals ruled by hunger, uncontrollable forces, the unpredictable sin of others, and even celestial enemies.  Those, too, need to be faced, wrestled, and put down, not merely by pulling out a bigger gun (literally) and playing by all the rules (seatbelts, speed limits, airplane security checks), but by putting our faith in a sovereign and ultimately just God.  We stare down those dragons and whisper "you can kill my body, but you cannot harm my soul, and one Day I will eat at the Table prepared for me in the presence of you, my enemies, and I will laugh with Joy in the Presence of my Lord."

Please don't misunderstand me-- I'm not about to park Eowyn in front of Star Wars 3 where Anakin murders children in their beds and talk about it with her.  Nor am I going to pull out Grimms fairy tales and read every frightening bit every night to her.  (Though at this point she wouldn't even know enough to be frightened; she's only 1)  We are always called to use discretion, and to help our children to think about "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Phil. 4:8)  All of our parenting speech should be "only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29).  You know your child, what would be good for them, and what would be exasperating or tempting to your particular child.  That said, don't shy away from hard conversations!  Letting our children experience scary things vicariously through story is one way to talk them through "scary" things.

I was recently asked by some men working on our (hundred-year-old) house if I was ever afraid at night.  Thinking of the neighborhood in which I live, and the fact that my husband was out of town, I admitted that, sometimes, yes.  To my surprise, he then asked, "of ghosts, and all that, right?  Do you believe in ghosts in these old houses?"  I almost laughed, but caught myself, because you know, there really are scary supernatural forces at work, and my confidence isn't in just saying that "ghosts aren't real."  I answered instead, "well, even if they are real, I believe that my Jesus is stronger, so I don't need to be afraid."  One of the other workers immediately grinned and started nodding, and I wonder if one day we'll remember our conversation in Heaven.  As I said goodbye to the workers and shut the door, I realized that my fear regarding the all-too-real rapists and thieves who live in our city (as in all cities), was gone, too.  My Jesus is stronger, indeed.


Kristin said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with the mention of the Bible itself - there are plenty of scary things inside it: blood, death, gore, murder, etc. It's harmful to children to shelter them from the reality of the world, for sure. It can really traumatize them when they see something without having talked about it with mom and dad prior! That being said, caution is greatly needed with our precious little ones and some are way more sensitive than others. Once they are exposed to something - an image, for example, you can't remove it from their minds. I had nightmares (horrible murderous icky ones) for years and years because I was exposed to horror movies at a young age. But as to ghosts, witches, goblins, why they'd be missing out on so much good children's lit out there if they were not allowed to at least read about those things! I just finished up reading Dicken's A Christmas Carol to my kiddos. Dark, creepy, but very good!

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks for the comment, Kristin!! :)

Totally true about "A Christmas Carol..." I didn't think about it before, but it IS kinda creepy!

Right with you on the gruesome images, too... horror movies have all the scare without any redeeming story line... definitely not edifying for children! It seems that a book without the visual might be less volatile?

Betsy Aldrich said...

Thanks for sharing your insights into this subject Christina! You think things through so well.

Jenny said...

Very good. I am one of those parents who have tended to make these subjects taboo, in an effort to protect my innocent ones... Perhaps that was an automatic response, because that was how my parents handled it for me. Now I have reason to think that perhaps this is not the Biblical way. I'm definitely going to think about this more and talk to my husband... thank you for your articulate presentation of your thoughts :o)

Amy said...

cool post! I try to teach Jillian to face her "fears" and "problems" now. Her fears are things like going down a step by herself.... not quite gobblins... but nontheless the fears SHE has now. I think the process is important though. And no matter what her fears are... try and face them WITH her... and teach her HOW to overcome them.