The value of reading does not lie in how many words a child learns; he is not a dictionary. Nor does it lie in how many ideas he is exposed to; he is not an encyclopaedia. ValuedMinds maintains that the words and ideas a child reads serve as a means, not the end. The more fundamental value of reading is its ability to show a child the nature and value of rational thinking.
When a parent or mentor selects a book for a child, the most important question influencing that choice should be “What intellectual methods —that a child may adopt— does this book present, demonstrate or encourage?” He must judge how the book may influence the way the child uses words, verifies ideas and discovers principles.
Consider a children’s book of numbers, each page with illustrations of lovable creatures for your child to count. You would likely not buy it if the page presenting the number six showed eight creatures. Or, if the quantity of creatures shown for each number was consistently off by one. How would our child learn the idea of numbers and of counting from such a book, if it were taken seriously? This may seem ridiculous with numbers, but too often such confusions will arise with more advanced ideas.
“I try to make time for reading each night… If I were to read only what intrigues me -the science and business sections- then I would finish [my reading as] the same person I was when I started.” – Bill Gates -
Irrationalities in children’s books range from the inappropriate introduction of a single significant word to grandly improper principles about life. Remarkably irrational ideas can appear very real and legitimate once fixed in place by the author, through a convincing plot and character. Your child can hardly develop rational thinking when offered irrational stories.
Consider how the original version of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen contrasts with the Walt Disney animation of the ‘same’ story. The two differ radically in the ideas they offer about life, and how they present them to children.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid shows children that happiness in life is possible, through adventurous and persistent effort.
Ariel, named after a mischievous sprite from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is amazed by the wonderful man-made ‘thing-a-ma-bobs” and “what’s-its” that drift down from the surface. She is fascinated by the opportunities of the forbidden human world, wondering, “I don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.” She sings with triumph in her voice:
I wanna be where the people are
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
Wandering free, wish I could be
Part of that world. (my emphasis)
Thus, Ariel is in love with the tremendous possibilities of the human world —as should be a child .
One day the shadow of a ship passes overhead, and she spirits up to see it. She secretly watches the lively crew, as they celebrate Prince Eric’s birthday. We see enough to know the Prince is well-liked, benevolent, tactful and ‘Disney’ handsome. Then, as she watches, an enormous storm builds. It tears apart the ship and the crew begins to drown. Violating all the laws of her father, King Triton, she involves herself in human affairs by swimming the drowning prince to a beach. She sings to him, but hides as he regains consciousness. All he remembers is the wondrous beauty of her singing.
As he disappears from the beach she sings,
I don’t know when, I don’t know how,
But, I know something’s starting right now.
Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be
Part of your world. (my emphasis)
Ariel is doubly in love. Humanity and the prince have become her priceless ideals. Romance too, is a wonderful part of life.
Ariel seeks to be transformed into human form, and the dark sea witch agrees to help. The terms are terrifying: if she fails, and the prince marries another, she will be trapped forever in the witch’s horrid garden of shriveled, worm-like ‘souls’. And, as advance payment in case Ariel succeeds, the witch claims Ariel’s singing voice! Without her voice, how will the Prince recognize her? How will she win him? Still, Ariel is determined to try.
The witch’s spell extracts Ariel’s ‘voice’, storing it in a locket, and transforms her tail to legs. In time, Ariel succeeds in impressing the uncertain prince, which prompts the witch to interfere to ensure her own agenda. Ariel and helpful friends fight back, overcoming a number of nearly catastrophic complications. When the witch’s deceit is exposed, Ariel retrieves the locket containing her voice. The prince realizes Ariel is his rescuer and she wins all.
Children can see that Ariel chose to become human because ordinary humans are unique and special. This is an important message every child should believe about their own humanity. It is anything but trite. A child’s self image should not be undermined by the misanthropy found in modern film, literature and even textbooks. This Little Mermaid shows young audiences that determined pursuit of worthy goals can lead to success and happiness, even through daunting challenges.
In the original Mermaid by Andersen (perhaps aimed at a slightly older audience) happiness lies in an afterlife generally achieved through suffering and loss. This theme is partly named when the mermaid complains that her costume for her ‘coming of age’ event hurts. Her grandmother admonishes her, saying, “Pride must suffer pain.” In another translation she says, “Beauty pays a price”. Why should someone who is proud of their work, who pursues their highest ideals, or who is beautiful, suffer pain? Why should children be taught that?
As a ‘coming-of-age’ privilege, our nameless heroine surfaces to see the World, and is fascinated by a ship’s young prince. When a storm sinks his ship she rescues him. She leaves him on a beach, and hides before he regains consciousness.
Later she learns that her mermaid soul cannot attain immortality unless she marries a human. The little mermaid resolves to marry the prince. But, she needs legs to attract his attention on land, so she strikes a deal with a wicked sea-witch. The ghastly and barbaric price for this ‘vanity’ is to have her tongue cut out, and to have feet that would pain her with every step, “as if cut with knives”. And, worse, if the prince marries another, our mermaid will die the next day.
The prince admires our mermaid but, he marries a foreign princess. Andersen’s hopeful and committed mermaid is doomed. But, through a new witch’s spell, brought by her sisters, she can become a mermaid again. The price? The vicious, stomach-turning condition (set by the author, remember) that she kill her prince!
Refusing the murder and having lost all she lived for, she leaps to drown in the sea —the world she came from— with her soul in defeat. But, before experiencing “the pangs of death” she is unexpectedly transformed (deus ex machina) into a semi-immortal form, joining with the ‘daughters of the air’, who also seek the Ever-After. She kisses the unwitting prince, her highest value in life, goodbye. Her ultimate ‘sacrifice’ is ‘rewarded’ by ghostliness!This ending offers a very smoothly instilled confusion for children. The little mermaid’s suicide is seen as a sacrifice for the sake of another. A common interpretation, that Andersen relies upon for this wrenching scene, is that her suicide exemplifies the ideal of unselfish love. But the ‘numbers’ don’t match. Could she have lived a happy (i.e. worthwhile) life, knowing she had killed her greatest love? Certainly not. Properly, her suicide was not a sacrifice, but a final act of selfishness protecting her highest values, namely, her self respect and her prince. Like a father leaping into the path of a train to rescue his child from certain death, her suicide is the proper, moral response of an intense valuer.
The story introduces the extremely abstract words “immortal” and “soul” to children, as ideals. Many young adults have trouble comprehending “mortality”, let alone its opposite. To a child, what is a soul? What, really, is the implacable endlessness of immortality? Why does either value require suffering to achieve?
Surely a children’s story should present sensible effort as a key to reaching one’s ideals. Instead, Andersen offers a view of life that is a medieval ‘arithmetic’. Life’s best pursuits bring horrible suffering. To Andersen, life itself is confinement in the Disney witch’s garden of shrivelled souls and abject failure is rewarded by the ‘freedom’ of death. Andersen may as well suggest that numbers should never be used for counting.
The manner of thinking the story encourages is also medieval. To keep following its plot the young mind must not think too much about the main ideas the Mermaid acts on. He must put aside any effort to understand them, and accept them, blindly, irrationally.
Comparing these two stories helps one see how the intellectual offerings of any story can be evaluated. Such judgment must consider the way a child’s mind acquires words and ideas, and whether the story’s ideas promote proper understanding.
The toddler’s natural method of learning words, and then ideas, should never be replaced by acceptance and memorization. His proper method arises from the natural structure and function of his mind, just as grasping arises from the structure of his hands. The way children are taught must obey the nature of their minds, from first words to adulthood.