6 Common Lessons to NOT Teach Children
Writing for kids is an honor and a challenge, because kids are smart and critical. They’re also eager to learn, which is why I try to think about the lessons my children’s books teach. I‘m not concerned with graphic violence or adult references: those are easy to avoid. Instead, I worry about subtler themes that creep into my work. Here are the ones I try to avoid.
1) Heroes are special because of their heritage
The Problem: the powerful are shown as deserving of power by virtue of their heritage. An in-born ‘superiority’ is what matters most, not one’s own merit.
The first lesson to avoid implies that heroes are special because of their heritage. Perhaps the protagonist is the last of a royal line or the child of powerful sorcerers. In a fantasy world that teaches this lesson, a few extraordinary people are gifted at birth while everyone else is weak and banal. (Just as disturbingly, villains can be the result of ‘bad blood’.)
2) Our betters know best
The Problem: the extraordinary few are given immense power with little (or no) oversight.
This unfortunate lesson creeps in when a protagonist joins an elite society with access to power and knowledge beyond that of ordinary people. Even if the society defends regular folk, it often exists apart from — and above — those masses. This exclusive elite is shown as having the right to make decisions for everyone, without consultation or permission.
3) The source of magic/power is the individual
The Problem: power is portrayed as a personal trait, without any societal or historical context.
I try — this is a tough one for me! — not to write a fantasy world in which the source of magic is the individual wizard. I’d prefer to raise the possibility that power sometimes springs from limited resources, social inequity, or ethical compromise.
4) Bring back the good old days
The Problem: revering an idyllic past, a pristine era where everyone knew their place. It implies that improving society means reclaiming the past rather than accepting change and moving forward.
I hesitate to write fantasy worlds that venerate the past. This lesson suggests that in the good old days, the true monarch sat upon the throne, the Seven Wards protected the borders. The righteous ruled and the wicked worried. Then evil crept into the world to overthrow the old ways. Now we must return to the unfallen age before evil — before change — threatened all that is good and right.
5) Keep fantasy historically ‘pure’
The Problem: elevating an imaginary, homogenous past over the diverse and complex cultures of the present.
This lesson teaches kids to idealize an (imaginary) homogenous past. It suggests that fantasy stories should be based on ‘pure’ historical cultures, and overlooks actual historical diversity. It also implies that the seeds of a fantasy world cannot grow from the contemporary societies in which we actually live but only from the ostensibly unmixed purity of the past.
6) The enemy is evil and evil is other
The Problem: adversaries are shown to be irredeemably evil, and that peace and justice emerge after we beat an external ‘bad guy’, without any further effort on our part.
This lesson teaches kids that evil deeds always spring from evil intentions. There are never legitimate conflicting claims; instead, pure evil emerges from foreign shores, a disturbed past, or dank chambers. And the solution is simple: if we destroy evil, goodness will triumph, happily ever after.
There are a few other things I try to avoid: writing a fantasy race that is inherently greedy, violent, or servile; making ugliness a sign of villainy; using ‘dark’ as a metaphor for evil; and — this is a big one — thinking that I’ve learned all the lessons!
What messages do you try to avoid while writing children’s stories or in your daily parenting lives? Tell us in the comments below.
Joel Ross is the author of two WWII thrillers for adults (Double Cross Blind and White Flag Down). He is the author of The Fog Diver, his tween debut, as well as its sequel The Lost Compass. His latest book is the start of a new series, Beast & Crown. He lives in Santa Barbara, California with his wife, Lee Nichols, who is also a full-time writer, and his son, Ben, who is a full-time kid. You can find out more on his website (www.fogdiver.com) and on Twitter (@TheFogDiver).