Should children be asked to consider the monstrous?

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m kinda into monsters. It’s been a fun metaphor to explore with my work in higher education and digital methods. I’ve had excellent conversations about the use of the monster metaphor (see Deb Netolicky’s blog about sitting with monsters). I am beginning to think that what began as playfulness after reading a quote from Anzaldúa about scabs (and probably influenced by Haraway’s cyborg) is continuously becoming a serious framework for thinking through methodological and theoretical problems I face in my writing and research.

However, there has been something which is bothering me about a monster metaphor. Does it need censoring? Is it an appropriate metaphor for exploring issues with children?

I think there are many responses to these questions. Neil Gaiman, for example, advocates for children being left to self-censor themselves when it comes to horror. He talks about giving his daughter a copy of It by Stephen King to read only to have her turn to nice safe prairie books for many years after reading it. His story Coraline  is often described as a kids book for adults, but Gaiman insists that if children understand the words and like the story, we should let them read whatever they like.

Fairy stories are places where children are able to consider the monstrous as a part of their own ethical decision making. Grimm tales, were originally intended for adults but, over time, became censored and adapted for a younger audience. These same stories have helped set up normative fictions about what is good and evil in the world, which need critical attention, but set boundaries for children to navigate the world.

But what if horror is not a fairy tale? There is a certain generous safety net when horror is imaginary. Is there a difference between real life and fictional monsters?

Last week I was faced with two very real dilemmas of speaking with my children about horror. I think the situation has compounded in my head because both incidents were on exactly the same day. The first was talking to my children about stranger danger. Every year many schools around Australia hold a “Day for Daniel” Morcombe,  a boy whose life was brutally cut short by a stranger who kidnapped him from a bus stop. Daniel broke the golden rule I learnt through Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: don’t get in a car or accept lollies from strangers. Daniel’s parents have worked tirelessly to spread the word of child safety around Australia and many schools have embraced a remembrance day for him where all the kids wear red (the colour tshirt he was last seen wearing). I really get where the parents and schools are coming from but…I still had to talk my child down from a panic at bedtime because she thought that the “bad man” was still out there hunting down random children.

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Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

On the same day as Day for Daniel there was a horrific daylight murder in my quiet suburb not far from my daughter’s school. I experienced an exhausting day of grief and shock that I desperately needed to process. I protectively ran down to the school and surprised my daughter and her teacher offering to be a classroom helper. I weirdly could not stop hugging my daughter and crying with her teacher. The kids didn’t understand (or really notice). The school chose to protect the kids from the event. I didn’t want to talk to my kids about it, but I wanted to talk it through. Unfortunately all my neighbourhood friends also have kids and we were processing in snippets in whispers that released some tension but not enough to fully debrief. There were even questions as to whether the suburb annual Halloween movie night should go ahead.

I found myself censoring the monstrous at the same time as trying to embrace it. My children are also in a position of privilege where what is considered monstrous for them is not for other kids.

It is in this contradiction that monsters really come into their own as a theoretical framework. Monsters are liminal beings. Evey time they are defined the goal post changes because scary stuff becomes mundane and we are alerted to new fears. Monsters resist definition. They are both fascinating and frightening. It is their very contradiction that is attractive. They are an emotional adrenaline rush that the words of logic in stepped out mummy blogs, and child safety curriculum packages cannot understand. When embracing monsters we acknowledge that contradictions are ok.

What do you think? How far should we censor children from horror? Are the fairy tales necessary for helping children process the real?

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