On the seventh page of “The Story of Babar’’ by Jean De Brunhoff, the little elephant is riding on his mother’s back when something awful happens: “a wicked hunter, hidden behind some bushes, shoots at them. The hunter has killed Babar’s mother!’’ The pictures tell the rest of the story – we see Babar happily atop his mother in one scene, crying by her side the next. The first dozen times I read the book to my son, when I reached that two-page spread, I would pinch the pages together to turn as one, and then skip on ahead.It’s become a cliche that today’s parents are hovering helicopters, rushing to shelter children from even trivial harm.A recent paper by two Norwegian researchers suggested that well-meaning adults cripple kids’ abilities when they try to make playgrounds safer, since “risky play’’ presents children a crucial and necessary opportunity for growth and development. Such protectiveness extends beyond swing sets and slides, reaching into perilous pantries (high-fructose corn syrup!), the Internet (pedophiles!), and even the family bookcase – (death! sex! racism!).It’s not surprising that many of us find ourselves censoring – even if we’re embarrassed to do it. Even a quick look at the most enduring children’s books reveals that there’s no escaping loss, danger, violence – all figure in some of the best children’s books of all time. And then there’s death, which Maria Tatar, chair of the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard University, calls “that big theme so strangely prominent in children’s literature.’’ There’s a reason for that.“If you look at all the old fairy tales, and even the current ones like ‘The Lion King’ or ‘Finding Nemo,’ ’’ says Lise Motherwell, a Brookline psychologist, many “deal with the loss of a parent, often the mother.’’These stories are popular with kids because of their subject matter, not in spite of it. “Those are questions and issues that kids are dealing with anyway and in many ways reading in books helps them deal with it on a developmental level,’’ says Motherwell. “They start to grapple with the feelings they would have if something like that were to happen.’’It’s up to parents, she says, to provide a context to help their children handle ideas that both fascinate and terrify them.While their children work on emotional issues, it’s a chance for parents to explore theirs as well. “I think I’m doing it out of wanting to protect him – but maybe I’m trying to protect myself, or misperceiving what he needs protection from,’’ Andrea Meyer says.Learning that Babar’s mother was killed didn’t scar my son. He still asked for the book again and again, experiencing and re-experiencing a very scary thing from the very safest place he knows – his mother’s lap.
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