And the Moral of the Story Is

I love telling and hearing stories. Stories are beautiful, and entertaining, and create relationships between people. When I hear or read a good story I feel like I am a part of something, I feel less alone and more complete. I feel nostalgic, or deeply content, or sort of sad, but in a good kind of way. My love of stories started when I was a kid; I grew up as a product of the bedtime story. Every night before bed my parents would read a story or two to me, and I’m fairly certain this is a common ritual in my generation. For me, these were purely for entertainment, but I have a feeling that most parents read these stories with ulterior motives, or rather, one specific ulterior motive, namely to indoctrinate their children with common sense, cultural norms, or social values known to be through the “moral.” Under the guise of fantasy lands and wacky characters, children hear all sorts of stories right before bed, and then internalize the morals while they sleep. It’s a seemingly innocent form of brainwashing.

My mother’s childhood stories were particularly gruesome and hard-hitting. She grew up on strict German stories designed to teach kids common sense. I’ll give a few examples. In “Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher” (The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb), a little boy sucks his thumbs, and after not giving up the habit, they are cut off by a travelling tailor. In “Struwwelpieter” (Shaggy Peter) a little boy refuses to groom himself ‘properly’ and is consequently unpopular at school. In “Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug” (The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches), a girl plays with matches and burns to death. In another story, a boy refuses to eat his soup and starves. (Actually, quite a few of the stories involve children dying…); in another story, a boy refuses to eat his soup and starves. Needless to say, my mother never sucked her thumb or played with matches as a child. Well played, German story-tellers.

The stories of my generation are equally loaded with morals, but they seemed more harmless, and what they taught children was less apparent. These were stories about princes who save damsels in distress, and stories about children who had two, heterosexual, married parents. Kids easily internalized these stories, and the scenarios painted in them were are then considered normal. The fact of the matter is that most kids don’t grow up with two, heterosexual, married parents, and I think it’s detrimental to present that as the only “normal” way to be in these stories.

Now, kids stories are almost painfully politically correct. They have culturally diverse characters, and you can shop the right story to teach you kid about anything from divorce, to how babies are made, to nutritious eating. I guess this is the right way to do things. Teach kids about how to be nice to each other, and live balanced and tolerant lives through cute and entertaining stories. I have to admit though, I kind of miss the good old days, when kids were scared to suck their thumbs in case the “rogue tailor” came and cut them off. At least with the old school German stories kids knew exactly what they were getting, because there is a clear action-consequence relationship. Don’t eat your soup and you will starve to death. Play with matches, and yes, you will burn. Kids these days just aren’t scared enough about what could happen if they don’t display some good old common sense. Let me tell you, if I ever have children (which is rather unlikely), they will have common sense because of some good old fear.