My last entry touched briefly on the appropriateness of exposing children to environmental tragedies and injustices. Today, I came across a gem of a passage in an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. Titled The Child and the Shadow, it explored the importance of myths, fairy-tales, and coming of age stories in confronting the shadow in all of us, represented by the other side of the psyche and is the dark brother of the conscious mind.
The particular passage that caught my eye came as Le Guin ruminates on ways to effectively convey difficult and mature subjects to children. She focuses on the notion of evil, which she describes as “all the pain and suffering and waste and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over and over, and admit, and live with, in order to live human lives at all.” The following are her thoughts; I bolded the parts I found most interesting:
“But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem – something neither the child nor any adult can do anything about at all? To give the child a picture of the gas chambers of Dachau, or the famines of India, or the cruelties of a psychotic parent, and say, “Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it?” – that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a “solution” to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.
The young creature does need protection and shelter. But it also needs the truth. And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself. He can’t do this if he feels the task is hopeless, nor can he if he’s led to think there isn’t any task. A child’s growth will be stunted and perverted if he is forced to despair or if he is encouraged in false hope, if he is terrified or if he is coddled. What he needs to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds all our virtue and our vice. He needs knowledge; he needs self-knowledge. He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow; and he can learn to control it and to be guided by it. So that, when he grows up into his strength and responsibility as an adult in society, he will be less inclined, perhaps, either to give up in despair or to deny what he sees, when he must face the evil that is done in the world, and the injustices and grief and suffering that we all must bear, and the final shadow at the end of all.”
– The Child and the Shadow, p. 60, in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
Given the nature and scope of environmental problems, we cannot simply offload them onto the next generation and expect them to be able to handle them; they will shut down in despair and hopelessness. What we can do, as Le Guin says, is to show them the truth: to tell them the reality and extent of the situation, to honestly admit our mistakes and shortcomings, to showcase the beauty and wonders that exist in the world, to teach them healthy ways to coping with grief and tragedies, and to help them develop the necessary mental strength and awareness to grow up to be resilient and sustainable individuals, capable of dealing with the challenges of the future.
What do you think?
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction. New York: Berkley 1982.