In defense of false expectations

Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”

But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized. The problem, as Lewis himself suggested, is that it isn’t the stated moral of a story that matters but the one that “arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.” That’s true of a story; it’s also true, I think, of life. If a story’s true moral is an expression of the world in which the story takes place, so are the morals children learn apt to be an expression of the world in which they live, rather than those made by exceptional literature. Too often we think of raising children to live virtuously as a matter of deliberate teaching and putting the right examples in front of them — or else we react against that notion as being uncomfortably propagandistic. I was struck by the reaction of some of the authors interviewed in the Guardian story, like that of Jon Klassen, a Caldecott medal-winning author and illustrator, who says it “gets tricky when you begin to see these books primarily as tools to promote certain kinds of behaviour, in any direction.”

Primarily, no. The point is not that children’s books are or ought to be propaganda: if they were, they’d be easier to ignore. Those posters from the Second World War reminding Americans that to drive alone was to drive with Hitler were laughable even at the time. When I was eight or nine years old I found a collection of “Bedtime Stories,” four volumes, red-bound, all very didactic, in which irritatingly virtous children were rewarded and the greedy and unkind got their comeuppances, always in the convenient span of three or four pages. I was well aware I was being preached at. There was no mistaking the propaganda. Real kids did not act like this, and effect did not follow cause ever so neatly in my world; they might as well have been fairy tales, if thoroughly dreary ones. Stories like that seem to have fallen out of favor — those volumes were pretty dusty even when I found them; now we send our kids to school and use lesson plans instead, which are equally laughable.

The problem, then, isn’t that books are primarily preaching materialistic values; that would make them propaganda, and kids would see through it — if it didn’t mesh with the norm of their world. And there’s the problem: the norm. It isn’t the deliberate propaganda that’s dangerous but the themes so pervasive even their authors don’t notice them — not the statements of how things ought to be but of how things are. Consider Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy, highlighted in the study: “a wordless picture book in which Daisy the dog loves her ball, only to have it broken by another dog. Daisy plunges into sadness, but is given a new ball the next day and her happiness returns.” Dog-gets-ball, dog-loses-ball, dog-gets-new-ball-and-lives-happily-ever-after: doesn’t everybody like getting new stuff? Doesn’t it make everyone happy? Of course the author isn’t deliberately preaching materialism as an ideal. Books like this don’t define an ideal but a norm, and that’s far more worrisome.

Children may be inspired by literature, yes, but more than anything they will want to fit in. They may listen politely to an adult’s view of how the world ought to be, but they will look keenly at how the world is and try to adapt themselves to it. If you are a parent who wants to raise your children to be virtuous adults — kind, generous, grateful, courageous, reverent of what deserves to be revered, not overly enamored with material and created things — then your challenge is to make the world seem like a kind, generous, grateful, courageous place, at least until your kids are old enough to have internalized those virtues strongly enough that they can stand in the face of opposition.

This is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to do. It’s impossible to do alone, much as your own example matters. You’ll need a community that models those virtues, that at least accepts that they are virtues and tries actively to emobdy them. Literature helps to some extent by reinforcing that norm, enriching it, expanding it, building upon it. And, in the case of fairy tales, pointing beyond it to ideals that we should reach but can’t grasp; but mainly, I think, by defining the norm rather than highlighting the exception. Norm, after all, is both descriptive and prescriptive, but it has to be descsriptive in order to have prescriptive power.

Now, a lot of people will be offended by this sort of talk. One is accused of “sheltering” children. “They’re going to have to be out in the world someday!” I hear, and yes, they will: they’re going to have to drive a car, someday, too, but not at age five, not even at thirteen when their feet reach the pedals — and driving a car is a heck of a lot easier than living well. I hear echoes of Lewis’ complaint that fairy stories are accused of “giving children a false impression of the world they live in,” but also of Lewis’ own complaint that school stories raise false expectations. To the extent that the world they live in is vain, ungrateful, materialistic, shallow, greedy, and rapturously irreverent, I say that maybe the world they live in really is not the best example for children. But you don’t have to pretend that exceptions don’t exist, that the bad isn’t out there — just insist that the good is the norm, to describe so that you can prescribe.

“But surely,” says Australian author Freya Blackwood, “it is the parents’ responsibility to choose books to read to their children that represent their beliefs, or to discuss a book’s content with the child.” Choose, yes, though when an author says that, it strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. But moralizing after the finis is a weak remedy. If you feel you have to discuss a picture book’s content with your five year-old in that didactic corrective way, either the book wasn’t particularly good, or you really shouldn’t have chosen it, or you’re just an ass. A book ought to speak for itself, especially one so short and visual. There will be exceptions; I usually run into them reading nineteenth-century literature, which is full of wonderful characters, enthralling stories, beautiful language, but also distressing caricatures of anybody who isn’t of good Saxon ancestry. No book is perfect. If bedtime stories turn into MST3K or even a graduate seminar, though, it’s time to rethink your reading strategy.

There is, in short, something to be said for false expectations. Faith may be at bottom a matter of false expectations — of acting as though we expect the good, even while having sense enough not really to expect it. When I lost my job a couple of years ago I found, among other things, that I could not face the “modern” fiction I’d stacked up to read, by which I mean naturalistic fiction set in the present about real people doing real things. Real reality was trouble enough without piling on. I read some historical fiction, I read some magic realism. But I read Wendell Berry’s fiction — voraciously. I’d read nearly all his essays and much of his poetry, but none of his fiction. I read Jayber Crow, and that was what I needed: here was a portrayal of ordinary people, struggling with ordinary things (that reflected nonetheless broader and even cosmic struggles), often failing — there are no tacked-on happy endings, no implausible optimism — but ultimately trying just to be decent to one another. (I could have re-read The Hobbit, as I did now with my daughter, but that would only have given me courage to face dragons, not dumbasses.) It was, perhaps, in Lewis’ words, a “school story,” realistic on its face and yet not quite naturalistic, just the sort of thing that might fool me into thinking that the world really was like that — or at least that it could be. But, you know, I needed to be fooled just then. Now and then I still do. We all do, I think.