Monthly Archives: December 2007

“Scary, mad wishes don’t make things come true.”

Sometimes people are good,
And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good sometimes
Are the very same people who are bad sometimes
It’s funny but it’s true.
It’s the same, isn’t it, for me and

Isn’t it the same for you?….

“That song…I sing to let children know that everyone does things that are naughty once in a while but that doing something bad doesn’t make you a bad person. It may seem a small difference when it’s written out like that, but the feelings we have as adults tell us what a big difference there really is.

“It’s easy to say ‘Bad boy!’ or ‘Bad girl!’ to a child who spills or breaks or hits or bites or gets dirty. But the child is likely to hear ‘I am bad’ rather than ‘What I did was bad,’ and a child who feels he or she is a bad person is also likely to feel unlovable. If we come to believe we are unlovable, there’s likely to be little motivation to avoid doing bad things.” –Mister Rogers Talks With Parents (Fred Rogers and Barry Head), pages 57-58

“[Professor Albus] Dumbledore consistently demonstrates to Harry [Potter] what the Dursleys never have: that he wholeheartedly accepts Harry as a well-intentioned person. In many instances when Dumbledore might express anger or disapproval of Harry’s actions – when Harry repeatedly breaks his curfew to visit the Mirror of Erised (Sorcerer’s Stone), when Harry succumbs to his curiosity and peers into Dumbledore’s Pensieve (Goblet of Fire), or when Harry furiously destroys objects in Dumbledore’s office in a rage after [his godfather] Sirius’s death (Order of the Phoenix)–Dumbledore instead empathizes with Harry and attempts to convey that Harry’s wishes and desires are normal and understandable. He accepts Harry’s emotions and gently guides him to make the right decisions.

“Whereas the Dursleys continually drill into Harry that he is aberrant and delinquent, Dumbledore instead tries to convince Harry of the goodness within himself. It is significant that Dumbledore is the first person in whom Harry is willing to confide that the Sorting Hat wanting to place him in Slytherin, a fact that fills Harry with shame and fear that he is like [evil wizard] Voldemort. Dumbledore does not simply dismiss these fears with empty assurance but counsels him that his choices indicate a strength of character that sets him apart from other wizards, both good and evil (Chamber of Secrets).

“Another quality of Dumbledore’s that makes him a precious mentor to Harry is his willingness to admit mistakes… he not only absolves Harry of some of the guilt of causing Sirius’s death, but also models for Harry the valuable ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes and view these errors as learning opportunities, which is a marker for a resilient mindset (Brooks).

“Another important lesson is the practice of weighing both short-term and long-term costs and benefits of one’s actions. For example, when Harry returns from having witnessed Voldermot’s return in the graveyard [and the murder of his peer, Cedric Diggory], [Professor] McGonagall and Sirius discourage Dumbledore from making Harry relive his experience and think it best to distract Harry. However, Dumbledore focuses on Harry’s long-term interests and advises that Harry stay and talk about the trauma (Goblet of Fire). In other words, Harry might benefit in the short term from postponing his reflection on the events of the night, but, as Dumbledore tells Harry, ‘Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it’ (Goblet of Fire 695). Harry realizes once he finishes retelling his experience that he does indeed feel a sense of relief, thus internalizing Dumbledore’s message that one must consider the long-term impacts of one’s actions.” –Harry Potter and the Resilience to Adversity (Danielle M. Provenzano and Richard E. Heyman), from The Psychology of Harry Potter (Editor Neil Mulholland, Ph.D.), pages 114-115

I juxtaposed these two quotesĀ  because they emphasize a couple of important developmental tasks a majority of children – and hence a majority of adults – have never mastered: first, the ability to understand that “bad” actions do not make one a bad person and that, given a person’s level of developmental skills, their “bad” actions probably generate from an emotion or set of emotions and thoughts that are easy to empathize with; second, that thought and action are separate, and that the existence of the former does not spontaneously create the latter (in the words of Mr. Rogers: “Scary, mad wishes don’t make things come true”).

This wisdom is pretty easy to scoff at: it seems to be common sense. But consider how many times you – yes, you, reader! – have felt guilty or ashamed about a thought you’ve had, or even worse, felt very scared that there was something inherently wrong with you because of the thoughts you have. I can’t really speak for you, of course, but I do know that I catch myself thinking about how “bad” I am (as a person) for some thought or feeling.

It wasn’t until I started working with kids – a whole four months ago – that I realized that the ability to separate thoughts and feelings from personal integrity is a learned skill. The wonderful thing about that is that it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have the skill to separate “bad” thoughts, “bad” actions, and (often negative) self-identity – you’re not bad or stupid or hopeless for not having this skill – you just never learned it. In addition, with some hard work (and it can be quite difficult for adults), it’s very possible to master this and other important developmental skills that might have been missed during childhood. (That sort of developmental skill-building is something I’m focused on doing right now, actually.)

I’m drawn to the above quotes because they explain in very clear language how confusing it is for children (and, really, most adults) to do or even think “bad” things. Better yet, both quotes provide a very way of explaining and supporting others through their confusing emotions and experiences.

(A marginally related post script: there are many valid criticisms of the Harry Potter series, most notably those of bell hooks and Jack Zipes. However, I don’t think these criticisms detract from the above quote and my subsequent commentary.)


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Popular text / popular persepctive.

“A text is popular if it resonates with readers. For a text to be popular, its message must fit the discourses used by readers to make sense of their experiences. A popular text reassures the readers that their worldviews (discourses) are meaningful. The satisfaction of consuming popular culture is that of being reassured that one’s interpretation of the world is congruent with that of others.” –The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (Diana Crane), page 94

Being reassured of the congruency of one’s world view is not the same as being happy about that world view, or gaining any sort of real easement for internal conflict. It’s more like someone saying, “You’ll never be able to fight it, so don’t try,” when what you really want to hear is, “It’s going to be okay.”

Popular is not the same as loved, and reassurance is not the same as genuine security.

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Food as a focal pleasure in children’s literature and children’s lives.

“It has been suggested that in classic children’s literature food replaces sex as the principal source of excitement and sensual pleasure…it might even be said that when food in children’s books is inedible or unavailable, it is the emotional equivalent of bad or denied sex is an adult novel. One of the reasons Alice in Wonderland is something unpopular with young readers may be that all Alice ever has to eat is drugs disguised as food.” –Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Alison Lurie), page 176

I’d like to expand that to suggest that food may generally for a sensual focal point for (many) contemporary children in the same way that sex is a sensual focal point for (many) contemporary adults.

The above is particularly interesting in light of something a teacher said to me about four months ago when I started my volunteer work with kids. “If you can’t get them to write about anything,” she said, “get them talking about food. Kids love to talk about food.”

At the time I interpreted her comment as derisive – I assumed that she was suggesting that children are one-dimensional, in part because they obsessed with ostensibly prosaic sensual pleasures like food. (I tend to get quite irritated when I think adults are belittling children; I vividly remember being a kid, and how much I hated being talked down to and treated as a lesser creature.) Regardless of the intent of the teacher’s comment, I have since realized that she’s right – kids do love talking about food. They love talking about what they ate, what they are going to eat, what they would eat if it were available, what the food is like. The 4th/5th-grade kids I work(ed) with have come up with some impressive and original food metaphors to use in their poems. However, I never understood why they seemed to enjoy discussing food. While food is necessary and often pleasant, I don’t find it a sustainable conversation topic.

However, then contextualized as the main sensual focus of the prepubescent, the food obsession of many kids seems not only understandable, but also more complex than I imagined. It also suggests that sharing food can be more intimate than imagined. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about lunch-time swaps during the time before adolescence, but I do recall that sharing food could be used to forge friendship (though sometimes that friendship was temporary or conditional) and prove affection to close friends.

The main problem with the food-as-primary-sensual-pleasure thesis is that food is generally used in the context of platonic intimacy, whereas sex is used in the context of non-platonic intimacy. Each type of intimacy has a different cultural significance, suggesting that the comparison of the two is inherently limited.

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“Many people…believe their deepest impulses to be evil.”

“It may seem odd to some that a self-confessed sadist should also be a pacifist. But it should be remembered that [T.H.] White was revolted by his own sadism; and war, for such a person, must seem doubly horrible, because it allows the acting out or at least witnessing of forbidden fantasies. It is also terrifying because of the possibility that one may be the victim rather than the perpetrator of deliberate cruelty. Like many people who believe their deepest impulses to be evil, White extended this belief to others, with the result that, as Sylvia Townsend Warner writes, ‘ he was basically afraid of the human race.’” –Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature (Alison Lurie), page 162 (italics mine)

The “deepest impulses” described above can more accurately be called compulsions. The trouble with suffocating exploration of compulsion – in thought, not in action – is that it limits the possibility of any relief from the obsessive desires (in White’s case, sadism). Most compulsions are expressions of something deeper, truer, and more unconscious.

I’m not advocating for the acting out of sadistic fantasies, just for self-examination, which can so often lead to realization and relief.

T.H. White is an ambiguous but sympathetic character. Deeply lonely, fearful of himself and others, probably self-hating. Those very qualities – moral complexity, understanding of internal struggle and dark or violent urges – are the things that make his books and characters interesting.


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