Saturday, August 9, 2008

Of Course I'm Right: Moral Compasses in Children's Lit

Here we are, back at an old discussion in children's literature: the need --or lack thereof-- of morals in children's books.

Not "and the moral of this story is" morals, but the sense that we are looking at a story through the eyes of someone whose ideas of right and wrong are similar to our own.

Mr. Luper asks,
  • In fiction, is it the author's responsibility to set his or her moral compass to adhere to society's moral compass?
  • Is it more important for a novel to espouse certain values or is it okay to leave things in a vague moral place to offer leaping-off points for discussion?
  • To whose moral compass should we all synchronize our own moral compasses?
  • Is the plot of a novel indicative of an author's moral values? Should it be?
But of course the question at the very heart of this (sometimes acrimonious) debate is: are children's books literature? Are they art? Or are they lessons?

Weighing in on the side of Nurturance of Children as the People We'll Eventually Have to Share Society With So Wouldn't You Like Them Not to Be Sociopaths are child development specialists, religious nuts, and various earnest people:
  • Up to the age of ten or eleven, children do not have an adult brain and are not capable of thinking as adults do. (Though as discussed before, they're certainly still capable of thinking.)
  • Even just after they develop their adult brains, they are highly impressionable, which is why confirmations and bar mitzvahs etc are all held at about that time.
  • It is the early inculcation of morals --before preschool-- that has the deepest effect on a child's innate sense of right and wrong.
Weighing in on the side of Nurturance of Children as People Who Will Eventually Vote and Who Ought to Be Used to Making Up Their Own Minds By That Time, Don't You Think are child development specialists, liberal nuts, and various earnest people:
  • Children do not become sociopaths --nor avoid becoming sociopaths-- because of the books they read. A million times more powerful in the shaping of a child's moral outlook is (a) their brain chemistry and (b) the example their parents set for them.
  • Children need opportunities to think for themselves. The positive results from these experiences are not only intellectual, widening a child's perception of the world and better equipping them to wrestle with the ambiguities and injustices they will encounter in their lives; but also emotional, developing the self-confidence and self-reliance that will allow them to wrestle without fear.
I expect there will be some discussion in the comments. My own position is that a healthy diet of books is a wide diet of books, and children should be exposed to as many different ways of looking at things as possible. That means some traditionally moral tales, and some non-traditional. Telling people (of any age) that they can think as freely as they want as long as they stay within the bounds is like telling a horse it can run as much as it wants as long as it stays in the corral.

So I have no problem with a book being essentially moral because the author just writes that way, and I have no problem with parents influencing their children's moral development. But I disagree that every children's book should present a united moral front. The difference between the important influences in a child's life being of one moral outlook and every influence being of one moral outlook is the difference between the halter and the bit.


Mommy C said...

The important thing is not the moral, it is the quality. If children are introduced to quality books, they will develop a love of reading. A child who loves to read, will become an adult who loves to read. An adult who loves to read is an educated person. I prefer a society that is educated over one that has had strong morals pounded into their heads. Besides, quality literature often grapples with the greater questions of humanity. Introducing these questions to a child helps them develop their own sense of values. It at least asks them to feel something, one way or another, rather than accept a superimposed set of values that only cover up apathy.

Susan at Stony River said...

Everything that mommy c said,


I can't help noticing as I raise my children, that *telling* them what to do or think always backfires. That, and they can spot a moralizing story at fifty paces.

Liana Brooks said...

My children are still young (6 and 3) and I still think there are things they aren't ready to see. I'm not going to read them a bedtime story about rape, murder, or drug use. Even if I didn't have a religious affiliation I wouldn't find those subjects appropriate for a child to read. But they are subjects I've seen suggested or printed for YA books.

That does worry me. Not because you need to moralize for children, but because humans (regardeless of age) will latch on to heroes and mimic them. If you hand a child a stack of books about a druggie what hero are you giving them to look up to?

Not everything is happy endings. And I suspect most teenagers can figure out for themselves that certain things are worse for their health than other activities. But I'm still not likely to buy a book that glorifies destructive behavior. I won't hand my daughter a book like: The How-To Guide of Self-Mutilation or Anorexia for Dummies.

Karen said...

Both the right-wing religious nutjobs and the left-wing radical wingnuts are right.

Children need to learn morals -- or rather principles -- to guide their own lives and to be productive members of society.

AND they need to learn how to make moral decisions themselves, so that when faced with a moral dilemma, or with peers urging them to do something that it might be wiser not to do, they have the mental tools to deal with it.

Kids who can make moral decisions that are grounded in a set of good principles will go far. If we really want our kids to have a set of sound life principles (like the Boy Scout Law: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, etc.), we as parents need to demonstrate those principles in our daily lives. Children learn what they live, and handing them books about good little boys and girls while chortling over cheating on our taxes only teaches them cynicism.

Anonymous said...

The question is not whether society is going to require books to align with a certain moral compass. It already does. I doubt you could find a mainstream publisher in America to put out a book whose underlying message is:
Drunk driving is fun and cool; or
If someone annoys you, kill them;
That's because the mainstream of our society has rejected such messages.
(While you may be able to find characters who espouse those values, the main sympathetic arc of the book will not be with those characters, unless they change or are punished.)
The controversy comes in areas where society is still in conflict, for example in the area of homosexuality (e.g., we have laws both authorizing and rejecting discrimination based on sexual orientation), and disagreements over how much kids should know about sex and drugs and at what age. Any book that takes a position on these issues is going to anger the people who hold a different position.
Quite apart from that is the question of whether a book's message should hit one over the head with a hammer. That's more a question of the writer's skill, I think.

Chris Eldin said...

This is very, very interesting. I don't think I can add much to what's already been beautifully said.

I let my two boys read whatever they like (*shuddering* at Capt. Underpants, but oh well). Except for Series of Unfortunate Events. It wasn't that it was dark, because they do read dark and scary stuff for their ages (Goosebumps). It wasn't that it was depressing (Katherine Paterson is one of my favorite authors). But it was dark, depressing, hopeless, and celebratory of all that is ugly within us. Too much for me. They can read this when they're teenagers, but not in elementary school.

Judy said...

Chriseldin said "They can read this when they're teenagers, but not in elementary school."

That makes total sense...there is a time and a place for everything, even books, and that time and place MAY be different for each kid. Just because a kid can read and comprehend well at an early age does not mean that the books written at his READING level are the ones he should be reading because of its content level. Books for YA are classified that way for a reason.

Sarah Laurenson said...

My brother and I had the same schooling, the same parents, the same access to books. I grew up devouring everything that had letters. He shunned anything made from trees. By the time I was 14, I was reading adult books including Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

We're both college educated though he went a more non-traditional route. Actually he CLEP'd out of a lot of his college cousework and graduated in 3 years.

Neither of us are sociopaths. Neither of us spent time behind bars. And we both know right from wrong. I don't know that what we read matters that much, really.

Mommy C said...

I have been giving this subject a great deal of thought today. In grade 6, I discovered Edgar Allen Poe and devoured "The Complete Unabridged Edgar Allen Poe". By grade 9, I was obsessed with Mordecai Richler and read everything I could (excluding "Jacob Two-Two which I had long since outgrown). I am neither paranoid goth, nor am I a drunk insecure middle-aged man.

Reading books is a very interpretive experience. Wether or not we agree or disagree, or like a character or not depends largely on what we already bring to the table. Unlike movies, so much is still left to our imaginations. That means that the way we experience a book is framed by the morals that are already inside of us.

As a parent, I feel that the key is to expose a child to the appropriate depth of literature for their foundation. You wouldn't throw a toddler in the deep end of a pool and say "here, swim". But, truthfully, Nancy Drew didn't cut it for me after grade 4. Had I been stuck in that type of world my brain would have stagnated into a wasteland known as total cynicism.

And, on a slightly different note, allowing children to read books that explore not-so-moral main characters is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, "Go Ask Alice" introduces children to the world of drugs. Maybe you don't want your children to know about any of that, but I'd rather mine know enough to have a game plan before they encounter it in the real world. When my mom found out that I was reading that book, it opened a lot of doors for communication between us. She had read it as a teen, as well. That book led to our first conversation about the subject.

Anonymous said...

I think what we read does matter. Luckily, most children read more than one book. What would worry me would be if my child spent many years fixated on one genre exclusively (e.g. teen romances) . . . that's when it's hard to offset the message.

One thing I think is interesting about YA books is that while there is much talk of "edgy" (and while this is a golden age of YA writing, no question) they seem to me to be much tamer than many published in the 1970s. For instance, are there any YA novels being published now that show recreational drug use without an anti-drug message?

Anonymous said...

On a slightly different note, I also think that it can be damaging to children's enjoyment of literature to have them read too much too soon. I dissuaded an 11 year old from reading A handmaid's Tale recently. Not because I thought the content was inappropriate, but because the writing was. It would have bored and confused her, and so she would have rejected a brilliant book because of too early exposure. I gave her Noughts and Crosses instead.

Anonymous said...

What sometimes gets me is what appears to be editors' almost universal aversion to any type of moral lesson in stories for younger children. I had one PB called "slightly didactic" when the only "lesson" was a child who stood up for herself after being teased. But when you read stories actually written by elementary school children, they almost always include some kind of moral lesson. Kids of this age tend to think in very black and white terms when it comes to right/wrong and justice/injustice... I don't think all books should try to teach them something, but the idea that younger kids reject anything with a lesson, subtle or otherwise, is ludicrous to me. I've worked with way too many children who enjoy reading books with moral lessons, so long as they're not heavy-handed. (Although my own children ages around 4 and 5, adored the Berenstain Bear books... and you don't get much more heavy-handed than that.) I think kids are still trying to figure out how the world works... and reading a book, for example, about a child who lies and then gets caught and is punished in some way fits in with how they think the world should work. And it seems like editors now bend over backwards to make sure there's no moral lesson in picture books, which seems extreme and unnecessary. Just my opinion....

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:18 again...
just read the other two "don't spam an editor" posts... this kind of moralizing is NOT what I meant as sometimes acceptable. They both were gag-able. And if this is the type of "lesson" editors see often, then I have much more understanding and empathy of why they would say they never want to see it in PBs.

Anonymous said...

Lots of fans, apparently, weren't happy with the moral of the Twilight series:

TheHQforHQ said...

A lot of great posts. I think I would add what some have hinted at--it's impossible not to have a moral in a book. In order for the main character to have an arc, they have to have learned something and if they've learned something, it's more likely a code in the ethics' or morals' book than the answer to a math problem. Even at the level of the PB where sometimes there isn't a character arc, there's still a value driven home of the power of beautiful language to the enjoyment of life. So question comes down to: how heavy handed is the moral, as one reader pointed out, and how the current society views the value taught--as others have pointed out. There's no question of avoiding it all together. Not possible.

AmyB said...

Anon 5:18, I read to my 5-year-old son every night, and while I'm often personally annoyed with books that have a heavy-handed moral, I've noticed my son is drawn to some of those books. One of his favorites, for example, is "The Little Red Hen," and that story is rather preachy. My guess is he's drawn to moralizing books when the moral fits his worldview--that is, when it resonates with him.

eluper said...

Hey there EA! Thanks for mentioning my blog post. The original post on my own blog stemmed from a review I received for my debut novel that stresses that I (as a human being) lack a moral compass because of something that happens toward the end of my book. It's interesting reading opinions here because the comments on my own blog are mostly from published authors, so there is a vastly different perspective.

Thanks for the insight, all you EA enthusiasts! The truth is that I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing. Big Slick was received very well, Bug Boy (my second novel) is through copyediting, and I'm well on my way to finishing book #3 (title is still ultra-super-secret) It seems to be working out just fine so far!

And thanks, EA, for doing what you do!

ICQB said...

When I was little I hated being asked, "What was the moral to that story?"

To me, stories were stories. A place to go for a while. Stories were a chance to use your imagination. I didn't like them being turned into a lesson.

And I was embarrassed because I couldn't usually pick out the moral. I think my mind was busy with all the details, everything that happened, not the ONE BIG MESSAGE.

I couldn't even answer the, "What's the moral?" question for the movie The Wizard of OZ without my sisters blurting it out first. Their answer was always, "There's no place like home." But I was never really sure about that. What about everything that happened to each of the characters? Does there have to be ONE BIG MORAL?

Kids don't care about that. They just care about the story.

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