A 'Neurotic New World' of Children's Books

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On the top shelf at the local bookstore, the "Sesame Street" gang stars in a volume about coping with day care. One shelf below, a happy-go-lucky family of bears offers to teach our 4-year-old a cautionary lesson about meeting strangers.

Afraid of the dark? Moving? Pet died? There's a slim, gaily colored book exploring each of these subjects.

Welcome to the neurotic new world of children's literature. The benign land of cats in the hat and Mother Goose is being elbowed aside by self-help volumes for the preschool set.

The children's sections of most stores are crammed with a startling array of books aimed at child-sized anxieties. A chain outlet we visited recently had little books dealing with the fear of flying, bed-wetting, security blankets, making friends, eating junk food, cleaning up messy rooms, going home when asked, waiting turns, telling the truth, and many others. Our personal favorite is called "Shopping," which provides tips on the proper attitude and behavior during a trip to the mall (final sentence: "I like shopping!").

Absurd as some of these "reality" books may sound, their popularity offers a sobering commentary on the troubled state of relations between parents and children. To be sure, young children, even those who live in affluence, face far more than children did a generation ago. Day care, divorce, academic and status competition, among others, are common and bewildering experiences for kids these days.

The real problem is that the demands of jobs, homes, and family leave most two-career couples too tired or too confused to deal with the stresses of their kids. A generation ago, the nurturing was supplemented by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other members of the extended family. But where earlier generations benefited from the received wisdom and helping hands of others, parents now often live far from those who could guide them through the confounding task of childrearing.

This isolation has bred enormous self-doubt, and the self-help-book craze is one tiny manifestation of it. That father and mother ever knew best is doubtful, but parents these days certainly do not suffer from overconfidence in their own abilities. Why else would they entrust the job of imparting some of the fundamental lessons of young childhood to "Do I Have To Go Home?" and "Why Are You So Mean to Me?"

At the very least, the self-help books for the young are failures at anything resembling children's literature. The Berenstain Bears series, to name the most popular in the genre, are little more than stern lectures dressed up as children's stories. The Berenstains' formula--and after 20 titles it is a formula--is to present a problem, discuss its potential repercussions, and then provide a pat resolution. The issue in question--sibling rivalry, mother's new job, fear of the dark, and so on--is illustrated by the actions of the story's perpetually misguided characters, a bear family. Once enlightened, the bears inevitably live happily ever after--until the publication of their next episode.

As a whole, the genre does little of what one hopes a book will do for a child. Because the characters are invariably stick figures and the plot barely formed, they do nothing to stimulate a young imagination, to entertain, or even transmit a realistic sense of the world the child lives in.

Because they are so nakedly mercenary, they also don't provide the sort of joyful reading experience that encourages a child to become a lifelong reader. The easiest test of any children's book's value is how it stands up to repetition. The evocative language and imagery of "Goodnight, Moon" is still fresh to many children's ears after a dozen readings; can the same be said for "Do I Have To Go Home?"

More important, however, is that "coping" books aren't very good at teaching kids how to cope. They fail to understand how a young child develops and learns--gradually, and through direct experience and experimentation, not lectures. Books that exhort a youngster to enjoy an experience or circumstance that provokes anxiety are glossing over the emotional side of the problem. By their insistence on speeding the natural pace of development, they are the propaganda arm of the emotionally damaging process that the psychologist David Elkind has labeled "the hurried child" syndrome.

Reading junk to a child may be better than reading nothing, but it robs parents and children of the opportunity to read something worthwhile. Some books are just enriching and delightful in their own right--the original Beatrix Potter tales, "Green Eggs and Ham," "Make Way for Ducklings," and "Cherries and Cherry Pits" come to mind--but many children's classics also communicate reassuring messages and gentle lessons. A young child learns about his mother's love, despite a new baby in the house, in "On Mother's Lap." "The Runaway Bunny" is a soothing palliative for children of divorced families. "Ira Sleeps Over" deals wittily and wisely with the pressure of having to grow up too fast.

It's an obvious point, but only parents ultimately can provide the emotional involvement and insight their children require. And neither are for sale at the local bookstore.

Vol. 09, Issue 03, Page 24

Published in Print: September 20, 1989, as A 'Neurotic New World' of Children's Books
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