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Author Topic: Teaching children fantasy
Member # 9116

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I recently had a discussion in which my friend eventually told me "Geez, Andy! Do you just want to crush everybody's hopes and dreams?!"

The discussion was about stories--be it in books, movies, or television, and the effect they have on society. It started out with him commenting that he doesn't read fiction anymore because it seemed like a "waste of time". With the limited amount of time we have on earth, we should be gathering as much knowledge as possible with the end goal of enlightening and advancing the species.

I then defended fiction using a common argument I've heard here: that our stories help us make sense of the world we live in. They serve as a mirror to give us multiple perspectives on our current situations.

It was then that the discussion turned into an attack of classic stories--with heroes, villains, and happy-ever-after endings--which is an essentially distorted, idealized view of actual reality. The thought dawned on me that this type of storytelling was extremely damaging to me and my siblings because it set up an unrealistic expectations for the life ahead. I went on the attack, thinking that if I ever had kids, I'd have to cut out all of the nonsense-storytelling in favor of realistic stories that give them a better sense of reality in their lives.

I have to run, but I thought this would be an interesting question to pose to hatrack. I've loved OSC's stories, but I wonder where the balance is between teaching children that they can be and do whatever they want--and, for lack of a better foil--reality?

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Raymond Arnold
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I think both kinds of stories are important. Belief in yourself DOES impact your ability to accomplish things, it just doesn't mean you'll always be able to accomplish everything ever. I think stories along the lines of Disney's new Princess and the Frog are good ones, insofar as they encourage kids to think positively but frame that positivity along the lines of "if you work hard, you'll get what you want" rather than "a prince will come and rescue you if you're lying around sleeping."

As kids get older you can increase the proportion of "City of God"-ness of the stories you give them, but so long as they get a relatively balanced assortment, you don't need to cut out fairytales entirely.

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It is a difficult balance, but it's not only fairy tales we're talking about. In fact, since fairy tales are often SO strait forward about the fact that they're just stories, I don't think they do nearly as much damage. After all, most little girls these days don't honestly believe that a white knight will ride up on a horse and slay a dragon for them.

It is the more insidious fantasies that are troublesome, and we surround our kids with them. I hate the pick on TV, but because of the sheer quantity of the exposure alot of kids get, it is one of the worst. It isn't what happens in the main story lines of the TV shows that's really all that bad, the problem typically lies in the things they show as being in the background. It can be hard for kids to realize the background is, in fact, part of the story. Instead, they see shows as a story set in a realistic background. Then, what sorts of things do we see in the background? Well, for one thing, there's almost always TONS of sex! Almost everyone in the show is absolutely beautiful, even when they're just waking up, just going to bed, or even sick! Bad things, like losing jobs, happens to people all the time, yet somehow they never have to move out of their homes or seriously cut back on their lifestyles in any way. In fact, even though some characters routinely whine about money, we never actually see them struggling with it. They still live in nice places, typically houses with a bedroom per person, there is always food on the table, and usually enough money left over for lots of scenes in the shows favorite bar/restaurant/coffee shop, etc. Almost all tangential characters are one dimensional, either good or bad. There are just so MANY things...

And then, of course, we have things like "reality TV" and magazines that portray themselves a "reality" when they're really just even more fantasy. That blurs the lines considerably.

True out and out fantasy can still be useful for kids. For one thing, it often happens outside a world the child can see around them, so there can truly be more focus on the story line with less "involuntary messages" from the scenery. Even complex fantasy still sets up a world where problems can be easily identified, even if they're not easily solvable. It can give kids a way to learn to analyze problems, even if the problems they're looking at are extremely far fetched.

And, of course, there's always the fact that books can be a haven and an escape. Real life is complex. You can't always even identify all your struggles, much less try to solve them. It can be nice to enter a world where the bad guys are clearly defined, where you an turn around and fight them with a sword. Fantasy doesn't always need to be teaching a lesson, sometimes offering a reprieve is enough.

Your friend seems to think that it's important for everyone to be working towards the betterment of the species every moment of every day, but that's really just not practical. I'm not sure that anyone can really do that, and if there are such people, they are probably pretty rare. (Does anyone know if Mother Teresa ever took a break?) The human psyche needs time to recharge in order to perform effectively at other times. Fantasy can give that to people, it can give them a break from their real lives. People try to get a break from life in all sorts of ways. That's one of the reasons we end up having so many alcoholics and drug addicts, and even people who aren't addicts will often turn to those substances for temporary relief. I hardly think that, on average, reading fantasy can be considered more dangerous or damaging than those things!

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King of Men
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He should define his terms. What does "enlightening and advancing the species" mean? To me, it sounds as though it should include working so our children can have more time for doing fun things. He might also benefit from the Fun Theory sequence on LessWrong.
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Member # 5358

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The discussion was about stories--be it in books, movies, or television, and the effect they have on society. It started out with him commenting that he doesn't read fiction anymore because it seemed like a "waste of time". With the limited amount of time we have on earth, we should be gathering as much knowledge as possible with the end goal of enlightening and advancing the species.
I think if stories cease to exist - if everyone else decides it's a "waste a time" - so will any hope of advancing the species.

However, I'm fairly biased. I feel story shows us how life should be, not necessarily how life is. Without that contrast, what will we be advancing towards?

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