Why Children Can Read Dark Stories

A few months ago, I read a comment from a mother in a newspaper article that she would not read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to her six-year-old daughter, because of its racist overtones, particularly in the early chapters which reference the lead character Mary’s life in India. I was dismayed to hear this. Partly because she was allowing modern-day values to colour her view of the book. And partly because I don’t think she was giving her daughter enough credit. In my experience, children are much better able to handle dark material than adults give them credit for.

The Secret Garden

In a way, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have children and if I did, I might feel the same fierce urge to protect them from dark or troubling subject matter. But I’ve given numerous creative writing workshops to children over the years, and children are willing to embrace darkness in a way that adults are not. I also think of my own childhood, when my parents were willing to answer any question I had, and when I came across anything dark in a book or TV programme, they were able to contextualise it for me and take any fear away.

Processing Truths Through Stories

From time to time, you’ll hear parents say that they won’t allow their children to read fairy tales because the material is too graphic. But in earlier eras, parents used fairy tales to explain the world to their children, to teach them lessons about good and evil and about the right way to behave. Stories give children a safe way to process dark and difficult concepts, and this is something children instinctively understand.

It strikes me that stories can be a useful jumping off point for discussion between adults and children. In the case of The Secret Garden, yes, the attitudes to race were somewhat unsavoury. But they were a product of their time. I myself wouldn’t be mad about its portrayal of disability, but again, I have to accept that this was a product of its time. Besides, the book also teaches lessons that are still vital today, about the redemptive power of nature and the value of kindness.

Children Embracing Darkness

In a week’s time, I’ll be giving a children’s Easter creative writing workshop. During the workshop, I’ll do a Chinese Whispers style exercise. The story will begin with the words, “The girl went into the wood,” which tends to conjure up dark fantasies in people’s minds. When I did it with adults recently, they stopped the story just as it was starting to get dark. But when I do it with children, they will be willing to go all the way with the material, taking the story to lots of crazy places. They will thoroughly enjoy the process and, as far as I can tell, emerge from it emotionally unscathed.

What do you think of children reading or writing stories with a dark theme? If you are inclined to shield your children from this material, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s always worthwhile to have another perspective.

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