Fairy tales and trigger warnings

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.  Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.  What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.  The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.  What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.  Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

—G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

I thought of this quote as I read N. D. Wilson’s recent essay “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children.”  Wilson has much the same message, except that in his case, it comes as a product of his own experience as a parent.

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help. . . .

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

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Preschool and the burden of achievement

The Atlantic recently published an article analyzing the state of preschool in America; its conclusions were grim, to say the least.

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

As a father of four whose youngest is still in preschool, this jives with my experience—though our current preschool is an exception, for which I’m grateful.  I am increasingly convinced that the biggest problem with education in America is that our educational policies are driven by adult anxieties rather than a desire to bless and serve our children.


Photo by author.

Impertinent question of the month

When people find out my wife and I have just had a son after three daughters, most of the time we get some form of the same basic reaction: “Oh, so you kept trying until you had a boy, huh?” In a lot of cases, I suspect it’s people trying to make sense on their own terms of the fact that yes, we just intentionally had a fourth child—they can’t imagine themselves doing such a thing, except perhaps with some particular and significant provocation. In a sense, it’s not completely false; as it happens, we picked out a boy’s name years and years ago, and we rather felt that it would be sad if we never met the person to whom the name belonged. Aside from that, though, we would have been just as happy with a fourth girl. The gender isn’t the point.

I don’t want this to come across wrong, because I believe male/female differences are real and important and valuable; I believe the reality of our two sexes, and the deeper and more profound reality of gender of which our biological sexes are a concrete instantiation, matters more than we know. But my children are not abstractions, they are not generalities, they are not case studies—they are themselves. They are particular specific people, and the fact that three of them are girls and one is a boy is very much part of that, but it’s only part of who they are as whole people, and I wanted them for themselves.

Yes, they are created in the image of God, male and female, as are their mother and I; but that’s not all that defines them. They are creators and destroyers; they are accomplished sinners and saints in training; they are capable of genius and prone to folly; and so am I all of those things as well, and heaven help all of us as I try my best to do my part to raise them to be better and more faithful and more loving disciples and friends of Jesus than I am. Trying for a boy? No, as well say we were trying for a pianist (though judging by his infant fingers, we might have managed that); we were trying to welcome the child God intended to give us in trust, as his stewards, to raise in his name and for his glory, to join the others whom he had already given us in the same way. It’s not about us or what we want at all, it’s about him.

Though I will say, it’s nice to have a baby sleeping on my shoulder again.

Bumper-sticker social work

Actually, technically speaking, it wasn’t a bumper sticker—it was a license-plate frame—but it’s a distinction without a difference. I followed this car for quite a while yesterday before I noticed the message: “PARENTS: PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT”—an injunction that assumes an awful lot. OK, so it’s better that people who owe child support pay it, but is that really the message people need to hear? Why assume the divorce and just focus on mitigating the consequences? Wouldn’t it be better to say “WORK ON YOUR MARRIAGE” or “BLESS YOUR MARRIAGE” or even (if you want to stick with the original hectoring tone) just “DON’T GET DIVORCED”?

“PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT” asks nothing of people but that they write a check once a month. A message suggesting they do what it takes to avoid getting divorced in the first place asks considerably more—things like humility, self-denial, repentance, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and putting someone else ahead of oneself and one’s own desires. The real problem isn’t the percentage of people who pay child support, as significant as that is—it’s the percentage of people who think divorce is all about them and what they want, and who seek their own desires at the expense of everyone else.

Of course, once you start challenging that mindset, you don’t just make other people uncomfortable—you put yourself on the spot, too, because you’re challenging the whole cultural system of which you’re a part; it makes it a lot harder to get the frisson of superiority that “PAY YOUR CHILD SUPPORT” can give you effortlessly. In asking something meaningful of others, after all, you inevitably require something meaningful of yourself as well.

(To be sure, there are those who would avoid getting divorced if they could, but can’t, because the divorce is driven by their spouse’s behavior and decisions. They’re victims of the problem, not the problem; this reality doesn’t make identifying the true problem any less important.)


These are fretful days—an unprecedented ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the situation in Afghanistan is coming apart, Turkey appears to be turning from ally to enemy right before our eyes, the economy’s in the tank and shows no real signs of climbing out, Iran continues to loom, and the Seattle Mariners are 19-31. (OK, so that last is nowhere near as serious as the others, but it still depresses me.) And of course, the list goes on and on, including such things as our government voting to abandon the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) to government by rape. These are not the salad days for most folks.

Which is why it was apropos, when I gathered the younger ones up to tuck them in (our eldest having uncharacteristically fallen asleep on her floor before 8pm) and pulled out the Jesus Storybook Bible to read to them before bed, to find ourselves here, at the Sermon on the Mount:

Wherever Jesus went, lots of people went, too. They loved being near him. Old people. Young people. All kinds of people came to see Jesus. Sick people. Well people. Happy people. Sad people. And worried people. Lots of them. Worrying about lots of things.

What if we don’t have enough food? Or clothes? Or suppose we run out of money? What if there isn’t enough? And everything goes wrong? And we won’t be all right? What then?

When Jesus saw all the people, his heart was filled with love for them. They were like a little flock of sheep that didn’t have a shepherd to take care of them. So Jesus sat them all down and he talked to them. . . .

“See those birds over there?” Jesus said.

Everyone looked. Little sparrows were pecking at seeds along the stony path.

“Where do they get their food? Perhaps they have pantries all stocked up? Cabinets full of food?

Everyone laughed—who’s ever seen a bird with a bag of groceries?

“No,” Jesus said. “They don’t need to worry about that. Because God knows what they need and he feeds them.”

“And what about those wild flowers?”

Everyone looked. All around them flowers were growing. Anemones, daisies, pure white lilies.

“Where do they get their lovely clothes? Do they make them? Or do they go to work every day so they can buy them? Do they have closets full of clothes?”

Everyone laughed again—who’s ever seen a flower putting on a dress?

“No,” Jesus said. “They don’t need to worry about that because God clothes them in royal robes of splendor! Not even a king is that well dressed!” . . .

“Little flock,” Jesus said, “you are more important than birds! More important than flowers! The birds and the flowers don’t sit and worry about things. And God doesn’t want his children to worry either. God loves to look after the birds and the flowers. And he loves to look after you, too.”

Thank you, Father. That’s just what I needed to hear.

Case study in educational reform

This comes from the NYT article I posted immediately below; it’s of particular interest because if you wanted to design a scientific experiment in educational reform, you’d have a hard time beating this real-world example.

A building on 118th Street [in Harlem] is one reason that the parents who are Perkins’s constituents know that charters can work. On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria. School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education—the union, big-system bureaucracy and low expectations for disadvantaged children.

On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work—and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year. This includes actual cash outlays for everything from salaries to the car service, plus what the city says (and the charter disputes) are the value of services that the city contributes to the charter for utilities, building maintenance and even “debt service” for its share of the building.

On the other side of the fire door, I encounter about a hundred children at 9:00 a.m. watching a video in an auditorium, having begun their school day at about 8:30. Others wander the halls. Instead of the matching pension contributions paid to the charter teachers that cost the school $193 per student on the public-school side, the union contract provides a pension plan that is now costing the city $2,605 per year per pupil. All fringe benefits, including pensions and health insurance, cost $1,341 per student on the charter side, but $5,316 on this side. For the public-school teachers to attend a group meeting after hours with the principal (as happens at least once a week on the charter side) would cost $41.98 extra per hour for each attendee, and attendance would still be voluntary. Teachers are not obligated to receive phone calls from students or parents at home. Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.

But while the public side spends more, it produces less. P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.

Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students. In fact, the charter school averages a student or two more per class. This calculus challenges the teachers unions’ and Perkins’s “resources” argument—that hiring more teachers so that classrooms will be smaller makes the most difference. (That’s also the bedrock of the union refrain that what’s good for teachers—hiring more of them—is always what’s good for the children.) Indeed, the core of the reformers’ argument, and the essence of the Obama approach to the Race to the Top, is that a slew of research over the last decade has discovered that what makes the most difference is the quality of the teachers and the principals who supervise them. Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington, reported, “The effect of increases in teacher quality swamps the impact of any other educational investment, such as reductions in class size.”

The parent-teacher dynamic, Gen-X style

I’d never heard of the site Edutopia before today, but one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an interesting piece: “A Teacher’s Guide to Generation X Parents.” It’s ostensibly addressed to teachers (as you can see from the title), but it feels more like a piece of self-analysis as the author reflects on her own experience. The key to the article, I think, is this:

If you want to know what’s unhealed from your own childhood, have children. Key to decoding our parental behavior is understanding that we are, albeit often unconsciously, doing for our children what no one did for us.

I don’t disagree with that, but I’m still mulling the piece as a whole; the comments are quite interesting as well. If you’re a parent or a teacher, check it out—I don’t know if you’ll agree, but it will give you something to think about.

The hardest part of parenting

is the vulnerability; as one of the commentators over at The Thinklings, BlestWithSons, put it some time ago,

The “what-ifs?” increase exponentially when your heart is walking around outside of your body wearing Buzz Lightyear light up shoes.

I very nearly fell down the stairs carrying my youngest last week; it’s the absolute mercy and grace of God that I caught myself and only broke off a toenail. I’ve been thinking about the what-ifs a lot lately.

What do you mean, “no”?

A colleague of mine recently made the observation that kids pass through two phases of egocentrism, once around 4-5 and once at the beginning of adolescence. He defined egocentrism as the belief that when it comes to something they want, if they can just make you understand how much they want it and how important they feel it is to them to get it, you will give it to them. If you as their parent (or other authority figure) refuse them, then, their assumption is that they must not have communicated their desire clearly enough, and so they’ll repeat it—believing that if they just repeat it enough times, you will understand and accept that you have to give them what they want because it’s that important to them. As he noted, the challenge of parenting a child in this phase is recognizing the reason behind their refusal to take “no” for an answer and not treating it as pure willful rebellion, while at the same time remaining firm in your answer.

Though this was a lesson in parenting, I have to admit, it set off political echoes in my brain as well.

So what went wrong? According to Barack Obama, the problem is he overestimated you dumb rubes’ ability to appreciate what he’s been doing for you.

“That I do think is a mistake of mine,” the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we’re making a good rational decision here, then people will get it.”

But you schlubs aren’t that smart. You didn’t get it. And Barack Obama is determined to see that you do. So the president has decided that he needs to start “speaking directly to the American people”.

Wait, wait! Come back! Don’t all stampede for the hills! He gave only 158 interviews and 411 speeches in his first year (according to CBS News’ Mark Knoller). That’s more than any previous president—and maybe more than all of them put together.

What that says, exactly, I’m not sure; but it seems to me to be a parallel worth considering.