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Psychology Stories: Children

Photograph Source: diario fotográfico ‘desde Palestina’ – CC BY-SA 3.0

The majesty and burning of the child’s death…. After the first death, there is no other.

– Dylan Thomas

The sniper who shot at Muhammad the child
Beneath his father’s arm
Wasn’t acting alone

– Aharon Shabtai, J’Accuse

If you are overcome by the horrific crimes against the humanity of children and then wonder how this can be, it may help to understand stories that adults tell children in their day-to-day lives. What kinds of core beliefs justify so much atrocity? My understanding comes in part from psychoanalytic work with children and adults. There are countless children’s stories, but I will focus here on Roger Hargreaves’ Little Miss Helpful and compare it to the Hobans’ A Birthday for Frances, and then touch on Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s revelatory documentary about the Masada and Samson heroic suicide terrorism stories told to Israeli children as they grow up.

Normalizing the pathological is a counterpart to the practice of “Pathologizing Kids”, written about recently by Martha Rosenberg’s Counterpunch article.

Little Miss Helpful is part of a 130 book series of Little Miss and Mr. Men pocket-sized, inexpensive books published by Penguin-Random House and promoted as one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. According to the Wikipedia, the books sold “100 million worldwide across 28 countries”. The illustrations are basically one-dimensional emoticons with heads and bodies blended in one big bubble. There is no separation or intercession between a thinking head and acting body. The stories give no impression that there is an inner life of thinking, feeling, or sensing.

“Little Miss” is a caricature, not a character. “Little Miss” is a cute and sarcastic term. “Little Miss Helpful was one of those people who loves to help other people, but who ends up helping nobody. Do you know what I mean?” The story goes from one slapstick incident to another, with physical pain being funny but never conveyed as painful, dangerous, or shaming. Every attempt to help turns into a silly mess, and Little Miss Helpful learns nothing and is never regretful or empathic. The explicit moral: Helping is Ridiculous. In some of the other books, the presenting problem is fixed by magic or resolved when Little Miss or Mr. Man is humored by Mr. Happy’s positive thinking. Do these stories distill the worldview of capitalism?

In contrast, A Birthday for Frances shows how a little girl can struggle and even change when confronted with some of the knottiest of human problems. It is Frances’ little sister’s birthday, and Frances must deal with her own jealousy, resentment, rationalizations, and her all-or-nothing belief about the distribution of desirable goods.

“Your [my] birthday is always the one that is not now”. The characters are possums but the illustrations depict subtleties of many emotions. Frances’ parents are parental, neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, and they sense when to offer help and when to step aside as they infuse a sense of proportion and reality to Frances. Frances draws mean pictures and relishes being witch-like. Both sisters remember mean things they’ve done to each other. Frances experiences psychological conflict: she cries as she does, and does not want to give her sister a present. She does buy with her own money a gift that she knows her sister will like – a chocolate “Chompo” bar, something she would love to eat too. She struggles with holding on to it, giving it a ‘Squeeze” as she is finally able to give it to her sister. There is no magic in this story. Their mother comments on how wishes to settle conflicts is “a special kind of good wish that can make itself come true.” And Frances is able to say to her sister “You can eat it all, because you are the birthday girl”. Frances is a child who is already quite a full person: she loves words and she makes up rhymes, songs, and expressive stories in the process of knowing herself.

The Mograbi documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes shows ways that adults clearly indoctrinate children with stories. Mograbi films parents, teachers, religious and military leaders depicting the Samson and Masada stories in compellingly exciting, frightening, and seductive ways that tap specifically into the various anxieties at different phases of development. The adult story-tellers conflate fiction and reality: a father graphically describes to his very young children how “Samson The Hero” disgorged and mutilated a lion, dramatizing how sadism is the key to security. A group of older teens, as part of their military training, hear about heroic Masada leaders and are asked what they would do if under siege by an occupying force, and without hesitation or any hint of irony, the majority said they would commit kamikaze acts against the military occupiers. A religious leader whips up sexualized frenzy as he conflates ancient Philistines with modern Palestinians.

I presented a detailed analysis of this film at the 2008 Gaza Community Mental Health Programme/World Health Organization “Building Bridges” meeting held just before Operation Cast Lead erupted against Gaza.i The telling of the stories evokes unquestioning admiration of powerful authority when children are beginning to form their own values; guides press for loyalty to the group at a time when teens waver between individual and group identity. The stark outcome is that these children and adolescents identify with historic victimhood as an entitlement to be grandiose aggressors like Samson or the Massada leaders.

A different and respectful message comes from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who “A person’s a person no matter how small.”