High Variance

Violence in Kids' Books

My 3.5 year old daughter wants to be a minotaur for Halloween. She loves the idea of a person with a bull’s head. She knows that minotaurs live in labyrinths and eat humans. For her costume, she wants to carry an axe. And whenever we play minotaur, she wants me to be Theseus and she often wants to “fight to death!” Someday she’ll know what death is and understand the consequences of a real fight, but for now these are just fun words to say.

It all started more than a year ago when she was in a phase where she wanted me to tell her new stories all the time. And I mean about 25 times per day. I quickly ran out of kid stories and moved on to stories about my old pets and stories about my childhood. Then I remembered the Greeks had some good stories and started telling her about Daedalus and Icarus, Pandora’s Box, and the 12 Labors of Heracles. She thought they were great and I ordered a copy of Greek Myths for Young Children which was age inappropriate (despite the title) but at least jogged my memory for a few more stories.

About a month ago I brought out the book again and she loved it so much she asked for a new Greek myth as her bed-time story every night. She especially loved the vivid characters and creatures, and she can now tell you that Prince Bellerophon rode Pegasus, Cerberus has three heads, and a Chimaera has the body of a goat, head of a lion and a snake for a tail. The stories were violent, but the language was relatively tame.

I was ambivalent about the situation, but then we crossed a line when I picked up a few more “kids” mythology books at the library. Suddenly instead of just eating humans, the minotaur “had a taste for human flesh.” Centaurs were getting drunk and chasing bridesmaids and the sphinx was tearing apart unfortunate travelers and devouring them. I skipped a lot of this, but then the babysitter started reading the stories verbatim. It was bad.

Now some people might wonder what the big deal is. Weren’t old fairy tales really violent too? Didn’t Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother get eaten by a wolf? Didn’t Hansel and Gretel get cooked in an oven? Indeed, they did. And those fairy tales werre written at a time when violence was a normal part of everyday life. Public life in the middle class United Stated is far far less violent today and we run a pretty pacifist household. Violent fairy tales are not “keeping it real” for us. I feel no need to expose my girls to realistic stories of violence until they’ve got the tools to understand and process it. I don’t want to violence to be normal. I don’t want them scared that if they go in the woods they will get eaten by a witch or a wolf. I don’t want them playing fighting games at school even if they seem fun or even funny.

The time will come when all the violence that exists in pop culture on tv, in the theater, at the movies, and in grown-up books will push through our walls and into their lives. And hopefully by that time they will be old enough to know that it’s serious business.

Does this mean we’re banning Greek myths from house? Not exactly. We’re trying a compromise solution. For now, I edit as I read. Theseus and the Minotaur fight, but not always to the death. Heracles has a simpler young adulthood where he does not “fly into a rage and kill all his children.” And Theseus’ father doesn’t leap off a cliff to his death because his son forgot to fly the white sail. When the girls are older they can read Bullfinch’s on their own and get maximum mayhem. Until then Theseus and the Minotaur can be friends who occasionally walk Cerberus around the block.