Psst, bad stuff happens. Just don’t tell the kids

Article by Karen Brooks /
Courier Mail /
December 2, 2018 /
View original /

By all means, let’s keep our kids as safe as is good for them, but let’s stop monkeying around with childhood before everyone lives anxiously ever after

Last week, a group of safety advocates declared that since monkey bars are among the leading cause of childhood accidents, it’s time to replace them.

What with? Cotton wool and bubble wrap?

Professor of Risk Management at UTS, Professor David Eager claims that when it comes to playground climbing apparatus, monkey bars are, “if not the most dangerous, they are up there in the top contributors to injury.” No-one wants to see a child hurt let alone hospitalised or worse for injuries, especially those sustained while playing. But aren’t we on a slippery slope when everything that’s fun, challenging and slightly scary for kids — and which teaches them lessons about co-ordination, resilience, sharing and courage — goes the way of the dodo?

And that’s before we discuss the fact they’re outdoors, exercising, and off their bloody iPads and social media.

Making parents (unnecessarily) anxious about what could happen to their children, we forget to emphasise the positive benefits of this kind of physical and fantasy play. How it forges independence, flexibility, strength, and gives kids a sense of freedom.

But it’s not only monkey bars, trampolines and other controlled, risk-taking activities we’re excising from kids’ play and opportunity to explore their inner and outer world and their physical limits. We’re slowly curtailing their adventures into the imaginative realm as well.

Once upon a time, a child could be enthralled by a fairytale featuring poisoning, beheading and other grisly misadventures as well as downright nasty people who usually (but not always) received their comeuppance.

Problem is, nowadays, wicked, abusive characters in stories and film are more likely to be represented as misunderstood. By the end, they’ve acknowledged their mistakes and are transformed. They often find suitable partners in the process. Only nice girls — even reformed ones — get the boy and vice-a-versa, and beasts can be tamed — and not just by beauty. In these versions, they were always pussycats to begin with.

Look at Disney’s interpretations of the classics. The Little Mermaid doesn’t die and gets her voice back, Cinderella’s stepsisters are idiots rather than nasty, self-mutilators, and Rapunzel doesn’t become pregnant while locked in the tower. In Walt’s world, the (beautiful) “princesses” always get their prince (often by being passive).

While there’s no doubt many fairytales, as Melbourne academic Dr Lauren Rosewarne has observed, contain sexist tropes such as women being saved by men and their value being attached to their physical attributes, by teaching kids to think critically about these stories and their meaning, about stereotypes and cliches, they learn about themselves and their world.

Instead of telling old versions of fairy tales, like those from the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Anderson, they’ve been recast to remove violence or problematic content. This is often blamed on the so-called “PC police.” But it’s frequently parents afraid of the effect the stories will have on their sensitive kids.

Denied access to what have been, for centuries, warning and/or morality tales, that provide valuable lessons about how we can overcome self-doubt and bullying, appreciate bravery, loyalty, and love, contemporary kids are given “Disneyfied” versions, where everyone, even the meanies, live “happily ever after”.

The old fairy and folk tales are stimulating, complex and contradictory and thus offer fertile ground for conversations about changing values, and the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, gender roles and families, then and now.

Professor Jack Zipes, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota and fairytale expert who has written many marvellous books on the subject and translated the Grimm Brothers, believes shielding kids from dark fairytales and their outcomes is “hypocritical — the honest thing is to tell children violence does occur. The world is filled with struggle and conflict.” By all means, let’s keep our kids as safe as is good for them, but let’s stop monkeying around with childhood before everyone lives anxiously ever after.Karen Brooks is a columnist for The Courier-Mail.