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The "It's Not Real" rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The "It's Not Real" rant
In the introduction to Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes--to my surprise, it is available here--he talks about belief and myth, and the weird things he was built to believe in as a kid. I highly recommend it, partly because he says some nice things about stories, but mostly because it's about the question of belief as it relates to fiction, which is something that's been taking a beating for quite a long time now. In JKR's interview this morning, she mentioned coming to America and seeing three TV shows in a row in which parents were told how to explain to children that such-and-such a story "isn't real." She's disturbed by this. So am I.

Children since time immemorial have believed weird stuff. King notes the famous "dime will derail a freight train" belief. I remember avoiding all sidewalk cracks, until I re-did the rhyme (for reasons I no longer remember) to say I was breaking the bad witch's back. Little girls trying to figure out the facts of life believe they can become pregnant by swallowing watermelon seeds or basketballs. Eventually, the weight of logic comes against these beliefs, but they're reasonable enough given the information people have. And of course, once we're done with those beliefs, we have to shove them away so that we have room for urban legends. As evidenced at Snopes, adults believe any number of utterly wild and wacky things as well. I think it was Jan Brunvand, the urban legend specialist, who pointed out that we seem to be "wired" to believe stories when they're told to us by friends. We live on the stuff, up to and including the parents who diligently inform their children that belief in poison golf balls is wrong.

I like debunking an urban legend as much as the next person, and the ones that are actually dangerous need it posthaste, but on the whole, I'm pretty sanguine about it. All those little narratives do something, and they become part of our memory, and are therefore real in that sense. I recognize Goblet of Fire as fiction, but I remember being in that creepy graveyard with Harry. In some part of my brain, it's every bit as real as the memory of the first quiz I flunked (ninth grade, geometry--I got a fifty). And as Orson Scott Card puts it in another introductory essay (Maps in a Mirror), at some level, no one really delineates between personal and communal memories and the "memories" of stories have an impact on what we know about the world. (He uses Frodo at the Cracks of Doom as an example of knowing the seduction of power, and how it consumes, and how you lose a part of yourself getting free.)

Which is kind of off-topic from the question of telling kids "It isn't real." I get the impetus--parents are afraid that their kids are going to be crazy. It's that simple. Delusions are a mark of insanity, and delusions are beliefs in things which are not so. Ergo, belief in a thing that is not so is a mark of insanity and must be quashed. It's the increasing psychologism of everyday life. But is it at all helpful, either to us as individuals or to humans as a species, to establish such a hard line division at all times? After all, things that begin as imagination can become reality (airplanes, space flight), and things that people take seriously as reality can turn out to be total fictions (flat earth, phrenology). The ability to believe in a thing may well be an important part of how we evolve. It may have some negative aspects to it, and like many things taken to extremes, it can go bad (eating=good, gluttony=bad; watching one's weight=good, anorexia=bad), but it seems to be nothing more or less than a natural function of the human mind.

Why are we suddenly so paranoid? Reading older books, it's obvious that children always played these games, and adults rarely thought twice about it. Tom Sawyer and his pirate games, Jo March and her sisters putting on little plays, Mary Lennox creating her fantasy gardens in India before she comes into her real one at Mistlethwaite Manor. It was a healthy use of the imagination. Why is the current generation apparently considered more likely to become lost and descend into madness if they're allowed to believe that Perez the Tooth Mouse is building his realm on Tooth Mountain and must buy little kids' lost teeth to do it?

This stuff doesn't hurt anyone, and I think it makes our lives richer and more complete to let ourselves believe in stories. It lets us confront demons we might not be able to defeat in reality until we've already defeated them in our minds, and it lets us glimpse a kind of real joy that we can only see a pale reflection of in most mundane reality.

"But they'll feel betrayed and disappointed when they learn the truth!" I can hear that from the peanut gallery. Shrug. It passes. And a lot of the childhood beliefs like that erode on their own, and by the time the kid is ready to know it, it's already become a game. By the time a classmate spilled the beans about Santa in first grade, I was already having trouble with the math about how he did the trip, and my babysitter liked to ask leading questions about how fast a sleigh could really move, and if it was actually aerodynamically fit to fly. I held on for a year, but by the time I dropped it, it didn't especially hurt. It was time. There are stories that kids might feel very betrayed about if they found out they had been lied to, but those tend to be very personal matters, not shared folkloric beliefs or pure fantasy. These come with built in expiration dates, I think.

The other objections are more serious. One, raised by TDU in a comment to my last post, is that sometimes these things can be horribly frightening to a child. I tend to go with Tolkien in thinking that the proper response to a child frightened of dragons is, "Well, there are certain no dragons today," but if your child has a real fear of reindeer and thinks they will make the house fall in if they land on the roof, then yes--it might be better to disabuse the child of that notion. On the other hand, children fear exotic things, and those fears may just be expressions of something else, and telling the child the reindeer aren't going to hurt him may just make that anxiety attach in a different direction (though probably one that won't make Christmas a scary memory). I think a lot of this just varies child by child. For myself, I'd have probably been made happiest by adding another story to the original story, explaining about how these reindeer were special and made the house safe from the other kind.

The other serious point is that our hardwiring does make us credulous, and sometimes the stories are toxic. If the story is about how evil members of group X are plotting against you and all you value, then, yeah--debunk. Posthaste. But using the existence of that kind of story to suggest that we should jettison our natural inclination to believe stories is like saying we shouldn't breathe because poison gas exists in the world.

I guess that's it.
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Comments
From: gunderpants Date: December 11th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's not just childhood fears and psychosis that's scary. I had people thinking I needed more help when I started voicing concerns about a former male friend stalking me; understandable if only because I'd undergone psychiatric treatment for paranoia and hallucinations. It was a weight off my chest when my boyfriend actually saw this person in his car outside my house (he lived an hour away too, mind), because having that validated helped immensely.

Sometimes I think parents don't want kids to be afraid or aware of stuff that can actually hurt them. I remember a couple of friends at school who tried to bring up the topic of helping survivors of sexual assault, considering there were some of us in that situation, but our teacher seemed to get very antsy, and said that it was too sensitive a topic and we wouldn't want to hurt anyone else.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: December 11th, 2005 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mm. My parents told us from the start that Santa Claus was (based originally on a real person, but) a massive game of pretend that a lot of people played, especially parents with their children. Same with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. I think this was a good approach, myself. There is, to my mind, a difference between telling a story where everyone knows it's fiction and pretends it anyway -- which all three of your kids-playing literary examples fit (on two levels, even) -- and telling a story you know is fiction but intend someone else not just to make-believe but to think of, at least for a while, as fact.

Perhaps the latter really doesn't end up bothering most people that much, but honestly, I'd rather be in on the game from the start. What the TV shows about How To Explain This Isn't Real suggest to me is that somebody never quite got used to the idea that both kids and grown-ups play make-believe on a regular basis... much less together... because if you do that, you probably don't need an instruction manual on how to explain the difference.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: December 11th, 2005 08:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
What the TV shows about How To Explain This Isn't Real suggest to me is that somebody never quite got used to the idea that both kids and grown-ups play make-believe on a regular basis

Excellent insight.

My parents didn't go into the whole Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy thing at all. On the other hand, make-believe and stories were a huge part of our upbringing.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 11th, 2005 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't think kids really differentiate at that point between games and belief, though. I knew I was playing a game when I tried to make a potion out of leaves and grass in the rain puddle at the end of the driveway... but I also kind of believed that I might suddenly become invisible or fly if I got it right. I doesn't seem to have done any harm, and it was a great deal of fun that I wouldn't want to rob my own children of.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: December 11th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you sort of make my point for me, there... was the game any less fun for knowing you were playing one?

I don't think I was deprived of anything by knowing that the Santa Claus-type stories were a game. It certainly didn't stop me from having fun with the idea, or with... oh, any number of other make-believe games, some of which I remember better than others.

On the other hand, I think your babysitter with the sleigh aerodynamics would have annoyed the heck out of me whether I thought the whole thing was a game or not. Different strokes, perhaps.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: December 11th, 2005 08:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I also think we don't give enough kids enough credit, thinking they'll believe a story is real. Kids have been playing pretend and making up wild fantasies since the beginning of time, and they're perfectly able to seperate their play-world from the world of meals and baths and bedtimes. I can remember one time that my mom asked me whether I understood something wasn't real--my little brother and I were pretty far into a fantasy LEGO world--and I kinda scoffed and said, "Well yeah, Mom, of course it's not real. We're just playing."

To a child, the world is a wild and woolly place, and they're far from having figured out all the rules. Imagination's an excellent way for them to deal with it all.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: December 11th, 2005 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why is the current generation apparently considered more likely to become lost and descend into madness

I think these trends come and go in waves. I read a book recently about childhood in 19th Century England, and it described theories where children were supposed to be kept away from intense emotions and fantastic adventures in fiction.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: December 11th, 2005 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
f your child has a real fear of reindeer and thinks they will make the house fall in if they land on the roof, then yes--it might be better to disabuse the child of that notion.

My parents tell me that I used to be terrified of Christmas when I was very small, because the idea of someone coming into my room when I was a sleep - a stranger - frightened me half to death. However, I also remember believing in Santa Claus 'till I was about eight, so clearly they never bothered to tell me it wasn't real. Wonder if that makes them caring or not?
spottheweirdo From: spottheweirdo Date: December 11th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I remember that when I was about 7 or 8 I was pretty sure that santa wasn't real due to all the playground talk. But I was never 100% sure, and I clearly remember asking my mum not to tell me the real truth until I had kids of my own, just in case, so I'd know whether or not to get them presents myself. The nice thing was that she took me completely seriously.
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: December 11th, 2005 11:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I remember being about 9 and asking my mom to please tell met he truth - she did, and I spent a few days being terribly upset that my mother had lied to me (I got over it) and then several more years trying to keep my little sister believing as long as possible so that we would still have stockings, because I thought that tradition might end when my sister outgrew Santa. My sister is now nearly 18, and we still have stockings at Christmas.
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: December 12th, 2005 12:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Before i was born, my father told my older brother that fairies aren't real, and my mum almost bit his head off. The policy in my house was never to tell us something was not real, just to let us figure it out for ourselves. I figured out santa wasn't real pretty early, but i didn't stop believing in him. I know fairies aren't real, that doesn't mean i don't believe in fairies. And as far as i can tell, as an (almost) adult, i don't have hallucinations of fairies because my parents never told me they aren't real.
stephantom From: stephantom Date: December 12th, 2005 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I actually was just looking for a couple C.S. Lewis quotes and stumbled across this website which is a long essay about pretty much exactly what you are talking about. Fantasy and reality and children's literature. It's pretty interesting, I think. I'm with everyone here that there is nothing wrong with fantasy.
mincot From: mincot Date: December 12th, 2005 12:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Bruno BEttelheim wrote about this idea, too, and pointed out (along with Lewis) that we go through periodic social cycles wherein fantasy is supposed to be Bad For One's Moral Develoopment. In reality, it's very good for the imagination, for developing empathy, for working through situations, for handling child's perspective vs. that of adults.

jetamors From: jetamors Date: December 12th, 2005 01:53 am (UTC) (Link)
Y'know, this is one of those things that I just don't get.

Now, granted, I was one of those kids who was never told that Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy was real, and I'm sure that plays into it somehow. But I've always had a very clear grasp of the difference between what is real and what is not. Even my dreams follow the laws of physics.

There were various things I believed that turned out to be factually wrong, but when I believed them to be true, I knew they were true, and when they turned out to be false, I knew that they were false. Well, with the exception of 'If you eat a watermelon seed, it'll grow a watermelon in your belly', because when my cousin told me that it fell right on the boundary line between what is Possible and what is Not Possible. And actually, part of my distress over that might've been because all the adults I asked just kind of smirked, when I really just wanted to know whether it was true or not.

Er, I don't know exactly where I'm going here, except to say that there are kids like me out there, and we'd rather have our bubbles popped.
sreya From: sreya Date: December 12th, 2005 02:03 am (UTC) (Link)
I was a very unusual child, and believed in Santa Claus until I was in 6th grade, despite the talk around me. I suppose it helped that I'd grown up with movies in which there were lots of characters who didn't believe in Santa, but by the end of the film they'd been shown the error of their ways. *grin* But I think it was also because, for me, it was very important that I believe in something magical in the world. I wanted to be part of something bigger than my little world, and fantasies like Santa and monsters under the bed and the other things that children believe let me do that. Once I was ready to move on, I asked the questions that needed to be asked. (My Santa transition was relatively easy - I asked right before Christmas, and my parents let me then BE Santa by staying up late on Christmas Eve to put out presents)

Believing in this sort of thing is such a widespread phenomenon amongst children that I really think there must be something about it we need to properly develop. Forcing children into a literalist mindset too young can stunt their ability to question things. At least, that's my theory.
lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: December 12th, 2005 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
The idea of telling children stories aren't real bothers me because it ties right into all the people who believe that every single word in the Bible/Koran/L Ron Hubbard novel is literally True and everything that contradicts it is False. It's not just religious people, though. There's all the people who feel the need to nitpick and analyse every word and deed of every public figure as if what they are doing right now is indicative of their entire being, unchanging through time.

It is a failure of imagination to be unable to say "this is a representation of truth" or "this a metaphor" or "this is an imaginative game" or "this is part of the truth, but there is more to this story". People with no imagination or sense of humour have no ability to put things in proportion, or to seek more information.
laureate05 From: laureate05 Date: December 12th, 2005 02:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I tend to be of the opinion that nothing really changes, and any shocking "new" trends we notice are neither shocking nor new. I don't think this generation kids are any more (or any less) likely to be crazy, and I don't think parents are suddenly doing crazy things. Folks have always been up in arms about silly things that are apparently going to drive their children mad. Harry Potter, Tales from the Crypt comic books, any Roal Dahl book, The Wizard of Oz, Grimms' Fairytales. Seems like just about anything worth reading as a kid pisses some psychologist off enough to make a fuss. Some parents will listen, some won't, and that generation of children won't end up any more (or less) screwed up than the last.

Antipathy for imagination has always existed, yet imagination always seems to survive. I'm gonna try not to worry about it one way or the other until my kid blames an imaginary friend for throwing a brick through the tv.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 12th, 2005 02:43 am (UTC) (Link)

from sitzegirl

This post intrigues me on many levels. Being a literalist, I find it interesting. In literature and my own make believe games, I always understood what was real or not. On the other hand, one of my most traumatic early memories (before age 7) involves a great uncle hiding my shoes and telling me a fib that he flushed them down the toilet. I laugh now, but I can feel the fear that my shoes were gone. As an adult, I still have difficulty deciding if someones joking.

As a parent, I didn't even realize I was doing some of things you mention. I struggle with my daughter’s belief in fairies. I'm perfectly comfortable with her interest, no obsession with fairy tales, yet I've told her that fairies aren't real. Maybe it's due to my own personality. I'd want to know. I guess I'll have to be more aware of my projections. She's comfortable and as another said, you can know something isn't real, but still believe. That will be my daughter in a few years! (And yes, she is a firm believer in Santa Claus and I often feel like a liar.)

Just in case you can't tell, I think fantasy is imortant. I think it's why I love Harry Potter so much. Fantasy makes life easier to accept.

Jennifer
(Deleted comment)
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 12th, 2005 04:32 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it was Terry Pratchett who said that it's also amazing how successful the government's supposed to have been in hiding all the evidence, given the usual track record of governments in hiding things on this level.

Ellen
faeriemaiden From: faeriemaiden Date: December 13th, 2005 03:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I've always found the idea of parents telling their children "yes, Santa Claus is real" vaguely disturbing--pretending that he is real is one thing, and a thoroughly delightful thing, but deliberately lying in the name of make-believe seems to taint things. I didn't grow up with Santa, although I would like to pretend Santa with my children someday in the very distant future. However, we did have the Tooth Fairy. Our Tooth Fairy was originally a Chicago gangster, until we moved to Masachussetts, and he became a member of the mob. He used to leave us notes along with the money (in Dad's distinctly indecipherable handwriting), insisting that we clean our bedrooms lest he injure himself! We all knew it was Dad, of course, but we half-believed, the same way I, at fifteen, still believe in Hogwarts and Narnia and Middle-earth and Neverland and many other such things.

But I certainly agree with most of your points--everyone seems to be underestimating the intelligence of children these days. We know that faeries aren't real, but it is spoiled by having to actually believe it, if you know what I mean. I still pretend--the characters I write about are extremely real to me and in fits of boredom I occasionally converse with them, but if someone should feel it fit to tell me "Er, you do realise that these people aren't real, and they're not really mucking about in your living room nicking your pens", I'd laugh at them.

But anyway. Here I am, rambling along, and not making much sense about it...what I really mean to say is that I am finding your LiveJournal extremely fascinating. I've been reading your work on fanfiction.net for a while, and when I saw you commenting in deleterius recently, I couldn't help but peek at your journal. I'm friending you; I hope you don't mind. I promise I'm not a rabid fangirl. I really love reading what you've got to say, and your mini-essays on writing and fiction are wonderfully thought-provoking.

And this comment has gone on far too long already. Fare thee well.
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