The Violent Shadows of Children’s Culture

John Cech. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Editor: Nancy E Dowd, Dorothy G Singer, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Sage Publication. 2008.

“Childhood is a difficult time…. The realities of childhood put to shame the half-true notions in some children’s books. These offer a gilded world unshadowed by the least suggestion of conflict or pain, a world manufactured by those who cannot—or don’t care to—remember the truth of their own childhood. Their expurgated vision has no relation to the way real children live.” — Maurice Sendak, Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech (1963)

Violence is an inescapable fact in the lives of children, whether it occurs in the real world around them, or in the works of the imagination that a culture produces for them. Every day we are reminded of the violence that many children are subjected to in their families, neighborhoods, and schools. Globally, children’s haunted faces look at us from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and our television screens as the victims of war, famine, disease, and natural disaster. We see young people marched before the television cameras who are the perpetrators of violent acts against adults and other children. We read the accounts of children’s accidents with firearms, and we read the studies of the violence that has been deliberately committed by young people with firearms or other weapons in their communities. And sadly we wonder if anything will ever change the tragic course of this history.

Ancient Beginnings: The Violent Literature of the Nursery

Certainly the literature and other aspects of the cultures that we have created for children reflect this history of violence in children’s lives. In fact, one of the earliest works for children in the oral tradition of most cultures, the lullaby, derives its name in Western culture and its premise universally, as a protective response to the violent threat to a child’s well-being. “Lullaby,” comes from Semitic sources that refer to a “lillu demon,” the mythological Lillith, Adam’s first wife in the ancient Midrashim, who stole the souls of children while they were sleeping (Gaster, 1980). In the ancient Middle East, amulets were hung over the cradles of infants to ward off any harm that might come to them, and a charm was sung for them—a tradition that continues into the present though we may not be aware of its origins (Gaster, 1980). Some traditional lullabies also express the violence that takes place in the life of the caregiver and the child for whom she is singing—the threats of a drunken husband or, no less threatening, the presence of starvation and illness. Sometimes these cradle songs are filled with the inward singing of the caregiver who laments her own and her child’s plights, expressing her anguish over the difficult circumstances of her existence, as in the Spanish cradle song that begins,

All labours are for us poor women
Who wait at night for our husbands to come.
Some return drunk, others return merry,
Others say, “lads, let us kill the women.”
They ask for their supper,
But we have nothing to give them
(Daiken 1959, p. 14).

Even a familiar song like “Rock-a-Bye Baby” suggests the perilous turn that life can suddenly and ominously take: “and down will come baby, cradle and all.”

Nursery rhymes—those often mysterious doggerel verses that, despite their literary shortcomings, begin the process of tuning our young ears to the rhythms of our world and its cultures—are also vessels for some extraordinarily violent images. In Mother Goose’s Melodies (1833), a popular printed collection of oral rhymes, we encounter alcoholism, madness, pyromania, prostitution, murder, child abuse, and mayhem of almost every variety. All verses are told to rollicking rhythms, easily memorized and passed along for centuries, as in the following ditty:

Snail, Snail,
Come out of your hole,
Or else I’ll beat you black as coal,
Snail, snail
Put out your head,
Or else I’ll beat you till you’re dead.

The long history of horrific content to be found in nursery rhymes led critics as early as 1641 to criticize them as being “unfit for childish ears” (Baring-Gould & Baring-Gould, 1962, p. 20). During the early part of the 20th century, a group of concerned citizens in England organized themselves into The Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform. One scholar of this movement wrote that “The average collection of 200 traditional nursery rhymes contains approximately 100 rhymes which personify all that is glorious and ideal for the child. Unfortunately, the remaining 100 harbour unsavory elements” (Baring-Gould & Baring-Gould, p. 20). Among those elements are

8 allusions to murder
2 cases of choking to death
1 case of death by devouring
1 case of cutting a human in half
1 case of decapitation
1 case of death by squeezing
1 case of death by shriveling

Catalogues of human woes were, of course, part of the raw material of these poems; many were adult songs, sung in taverns, while traveling or working, celebrating or soldiering. Much as we might wish to keep these rhymes from toddlers today, they were once shared by a common audience that did not object to their contents or make distinctions between an audience of adults and one that included children. Indeed, a mistake that is commonly made about children’s literature from previous centuries is the assumption that the Mother Goose figure was exclusively surrounded by children when, in fact, her audience was multigenerational and her subject matter was adamantly populist and non-discriminatory. In the world of Mother Goose, everyone and everything is rolled together in the same rough and ready, rollicking mix.

The same is true for the stories passed across generations through the oral tradition, which include among its myriad forms myths, legends, fables, folktales, puppet and other theater, pageants, jokes, anecdotes, and songs. This literature was meant to be heard across generations, and usually across classes. Often societies have constructed elaborate story cycles that were part of ritualized performances intended for specific times of the year. While the stories in these traditions frequently contain violent episodes, children are usually not deliberately excluded from the public events during which these materials were presented. To the contrary, the cultural attitudes that children were supposed to be absorbing were contained in these stories. The epic and violent deeds of the young Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, for example, which comprise the oldest story that exists in the West, were carved, the poem tells us, upon the walls of the ancient city of Uruk so the entire population could read about his exploits (Sandars, 1972, p. 117). Myths are often bloody, but because their narratives relay the essential beliefs of a people, they are also considered essential for children to experience because, through them, children are exposed to the core values of their culture.

Art has been similarly directed toward an intergenerational audience since its beginnings. For instance, the paintings that appeared in paleolithic caves did not, as far as we know, spare the children of the tribe from representations of hunting, and the lethal accidents and injuries that sometimes befell the hunters. Nor did the bas reliefs of Egypt, the mosaics of Mycenae, the frescoes of Rome, or public sculptures of the Renaissance try to expunge violence from their subject matter, despite the fact that children would also be part of their audience. Certainly, one cannot adequately represent a number of the crucial stories of the Old or New Testaments of the Bible in visual or verbal forms without some reference to the physical violence that is enacted in many of the central episodes of these ancient texts and works of art. In his recent film, “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson unsparingly (and controversially) recreated the violence that would have been inflicted on Christ, and during the movie’s theatrical release in the United States, whole congregations, including children, attended screenings together.

Although we may find this alarming, we should remember that children have historically witnessed a wide variety of public spectacles, from self-flagellation, executions, and violent games to puppet plays, like the Balinese Dalang and the Punch and Judy shows, both of which contain violent material and were performed in public spaces. Relatively little thought has been given to censoring these events or the arts from a child’s environment until the 20th century. Two horrific World Wars, the threat of global annihilation, and the advent of movements for nonviolence and peaceful resolution of conflict have linked with the arguments of modern psychologists and parenting experts about the need for adults to minimize potentially traumatic experiences for their children, even the kind found in the arts and literature.

Children’s Folklore: The Rough and Tumble Playground

As children grow older, the folklore of games, songs, rhymes, stories, rituals, and beliefs that they create and perpetuate solely among themselves, is just as challenging and often downright shocking to adult ears. The English scholar Douglas Newton called children “the greatest of savage tribes, and the only one which shows no sign of dying out” (Opie & Opie, 1959, p. 2). Two scholars of children’s folklore, lona and Peter Opie, in their classic study, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), collected thousands of rhymes that included a group they called “jeers and other torments.” These include a wide range of verbal taunts, such as this warning to a tattle tale:

Tell tale tit,
Your tongue shall be slit,
And all the little dickey birds
Will have a little bit. (p. 190)

Other “torments” include forms of ritualized physical violence that English children have inflicted on one another for centuries, passing this tradition on from generation to generation. One of these “tortures,” depicted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in his renowned 16th-century painting, Kinderspiele, was called “Running the Gauntlet.” The Opies recorded this ritual as still being practiced in 20th-century England. It was meant to teach bullies a lesson, as the Opies’ young informant explained:

When boys are not agreeable and are bullies they are put through the mill. This is a kind of torture, and about twenty boys or less, as the case may be, put their hands flat on the wall, with arms outstretched to form a tunnel. The bully has to go through the mill four times. The first time he has rain, this is a good slap from each boy. The second time he gets lightning, this is a rabbit-punch. The third time he gets thunder, this is a prod with the knee. Fourth time he gets hailstones, this is a very hard punch in the back. I can assure you the bully will behave after this. (p. 200)

In their illuminating study of U.S. children’s folklore, One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children (1976), Mary and Herbert Knapp include folklore that is particular to the cultural dynamics of the United States. One of their many fascinating discussions concerns the centuries-old practice of verbal taunting in the African American oral tradition, “doing the dozens.” Antagonists hurl insults at each other to demonstrate their verbal prowess, including the well-known kinds of ever-escalating exchanges that begin with “Yo’ mama….” The Knapps argue that the verbal violence that is often displayed in these shouting matches on the streets and playgrounds, in school yards and hallways, provide ways that children construct their social hierarchies and establish the range and dynamics of individual power. The loudest, most fluid, most imaginative insulter gains prestige among his or her peers. Cruel as these “cuts” can be, they also serve as a sublimated substitute for actual, physical conflict.

The Painful Lessons of the Cautionary Tale

Along with these rhymes and their often cruel content, violence has also entered into children’s lives in the form of the didactic lessons that adults have been passing along to their offspring for centuries. In colonial America, for example, a good number of the most popular books published during the late 17th century were replete with Puritan pedagogy based on texts known as the “joyous death” books named for James Janeway’s popular volume, A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Death s of Several Young Children (1672). Janeway led this movement of clergymen-writers who thought that they could encourage proper, redemption-worthy behavior in their young flocks through stories of young people who had died or were dying because they had not been obedient children. Instead of going to school, one boy played hooky, fell into a river, became ill, and died as a result of his misguided deeds. Let the young, truant reader beware!

The tradition of the teaching story is among the earliest in literature, but Aesop could not have dreamed of the exquisite torments that would be meted out to American children along with their alphabets. In one of the most famous tales from England, “The Prodigal Daughter” (ca. 1737), a girl makes a pact with the Devil in order to increase her allowance. The only catch is that she must agree to kill her mother and father (copying the murder of Hamlet’s father) by pouring poison into their ears while they sleep. Only angelic divine intercession prevents the parenticide, and the now repentant girl, risen literally from her coffin that is about to be interred, takes it upon herself to warn other children not to follow a similar road to perdition.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s literature on both sides of the Atlantic carried on this didactic tradition in secular, though no less bloody terms. By the late 18th century, the Zeitgeist with regard to children was moving in a new direction. In its first edition, The New England Primer presented children as innately flawed creatures: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” (The New England Primer, 1727). But a century later, in one of the many revised editions of the Primer, the verse had morphed into “Adam and Eve, Their God did grieve” (Beauties of the New-England Primer, ca. 1825, p. 1). This change of just a few words indicated a dramatic shift in the doctrine that governed thinking about the core, moral condition of both adults and children. It represented, in essence, a paradigmatic shift vis-à-vis children, brought about by a number of factors, including the mellowing of theological opinion from the Calvinist view of the fallen child and the influence of rationalists like John Locke, who argued that the child was a “tabula rasa,” and thus adults should be very careful what was written on that clean slate. In addition, the idealistic philosophies about childhood expressed by writers like Rousseau and the artistic intuitions of the Romantic movement like those of William Blake, whose poetry likens the child’s primal nature to a state of innocence, and William Wordsworth, for whom the child came into this world “trailing clouds of glory” also contributed to this shift. Quite simply, the child was no longer being summarily dismissed as a brutish creature.

Despite this distinctly progressive turn, the child was still seen in many quarters as being in need of constant and often harsh instruction, lest something terrible befall him or her. Even a quick dash could be deadly, as one story, “The Dangers of the Streets” (ca. 1820), lets its young readers know:

[George] was thoughtless and giddy, would ran across streets when carriages were driving up a full speed, and often very narrowly escaped being run over….

But see the dreadful consequences of his giddiness and folly! His foot slipped; he fell under the loaded wagon; the wheel passed over one of his legs, and shattered it in a most shocking manner.

Lhus mangled and racked with pain, he shrieked most piteously and repented his folly when too late. (Arnold, 1969, p. 20)

In these new, secular cautionary tales, children who do not listen are not, in Jonathan Edwards’s well-known phrase, young “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” ready to fall into Hell (1741). Rather, they accidentally tumble from rooftops or are crushed beneath wagon wheels. In other such tales, children are injured by fireworks, unsafe railings, floorboards, and ferocious animals. The 19th century would produce a number of authors who would satirize these horrific stories, including Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. In his story, Carroll, who was himself a member of the clergy as well as a mathematician, poked fun at such moralistic tracts as those to be found in Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs (1971): The “little busy bee” of Watts’s poem, for example, becomes, with some tweaking from Carroll, a “little crocodile.”

Others in this tradition include the German doctor, Heinrich Hoffmann, who created Struwwelpeter (1845), a series of stories about children who do not listen to their parents and suffer extremely gruesome, over-the-top consequences: Harriet, who loves to play with matches, burns herself up—leaving only her little shoes. Conrad is deaf to the warnings of his mother about sucking his thumbs, and, while she is out, the Scissors Man appears and cuts them off. The artist Wilhelm Busch, one of the inventors of the comic book, wrote a series of adventures of two bad boys, Max and Moritz (1865), who play tricks on people, some quite violent (like loading the pipe of the church organist, Master Lämpel, with gunpowder). The boys’ final trick lands them in the miller’s hopper, where they are ground up into pellets, and eaten by the miller’s ducks, much to the merriment of the villagers, who are delighted to be rid of the two rapscallions. By the end of the 19th century, Hilaire Belloc wrote the hilarious “Jim,” first published in Cautionary Tales for Children (1908). This story tells of a little boy who slips out of his nurse’s hands while at the zoo, and is eaten by a lion, leaving only his head. The poem ends,

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as she dried her eyes,
Said, “Well—it give me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep ahold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

One might think that these satires of cautionary tales would have hastened the demise of this genre of children’s literature, but these kinds of didactic tales resurfaced again in an even stronger form in the schoolrooms of the United States from the late 1940s through the 1970s. In a genre collectively called “mental hygiene” movies, one film, Live and Learn (1951), warned about everyday carelessness—playing in the street, jumping from rooftops, lighting fires with gasoline, running with scissors. Each of the brief episodes in this short film ends up with a child in the emergency room, swathed in bandages, with the weary voice-over repeating “if only he had listened. …” For older children, the violence was ratcheted up, as in Age 13 (1955), an exploration of a “confused” boy’s downward spiral into juvenile delinquency, or The Last From (1972), about an alcohol-precipitated car wreck. Dozens of films from the 1950s through the 1970s gave their grim warnings about substance abuse (see Ken Smith’s book, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970).

Fairy tales and other traditional folk stories have been among the most controversial of any genres in the children’s literature canon since Sara Trimmer first attacked the tales in her magazine, The Guardian of Education, in the early 1800s. Many of these stories, which were originally part of oral, pre-literate traditions, were unsparing in their graphic violence, even as they morphed over the centuries from oral to written forms. “Little Red Riding Hood,” first in print in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or tales of times past) (1697), initially ended with the wolf devouring both the grandmother and her granddaughter. No passing huntsman arrives to rescue the victims, and the tale becomes a fable, complete with the moral,

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay or charming—never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth-
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!
(Perrault’s Fairy Tales, p. 29)

In a 1939 retelling of this tale in Fables for Our Times, James Thurber armed his little girl with an automatic pistol. His heroine is not to be fooled because “even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge” (p. 5). Other retellings make use of the familiar ending in which the hunter saves the grandmother and her daughter by killing the wolf who has eaten them. In a controversial version of the tale published with illustrations by the late Trina Schart Hyman in 1986, the grandmother and the huntsman have a celebratory glass of wine after their ordeal.

The Brothers Grimm first published their famous Household Stories in 1812, to preserve important aspects of oral Germanic culture they feared were dying. The Grimms chose to edit out much of the sexual and political content of these well-known stories but maintained the violence. They left in the chilling wedding reception party that ends “Snow-White,” in which the wicked stepmother is meted out justice in horrifyingly understated terms: “And when she saw her she knew her for Snow-White and could not stir from the place for anger and terror. For they had ready red-hot iron shoes, in which she had to dance until she fell down dead” (Grimm & Grimm, 1886, p. 221). Though fairy tales have been contested literary works in children’s culture for years, the concern has usually been about the sexist, authoritarian, or classist elements of the tales and not their violent content. In his now famous defense of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), noted child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim urged parents to retell to their children the traditional stories in their original forms, without censoring the violence. He argued that the tales’ violence, especially the endings, should not be taken literally. These tales were metaphors that worked through universal questions young people have about growing up and coming into their own as distinct, valuable human beings. The symbolic nature of the final, violent acts in the tales, Bettelheim stressed, often served an important psychological function for both the teller and listener: that of restoring a sense of justness and order to the imaginary world the child has entered and vicariously lived through in the stories. Since Bettelheim’s widely publicized defense of the tales, the subject of violence has hardly come up for discussion. Instead, general challenges to Bettelheim and his advocacy of the tales in their original forms have been over his seeming acceptance of the gender and class stereotypes that some have argued the tales in their original forms tend to perpetuate. More recently, the magical, supernatural elements of the tales have become a subject of concern for some adults who find these facets of the stories to be in conflict with their religious beliefs. Still, one must wonder if Bettelheim is right about offering these traditional, often violent tales to young children, despite the “just” and “happy” endings of these stories, since a young child may well be unable to process the violent content of this material.

If we look at the history of children’s literature prior to this century, when the violence contained in a story for children is seen as serving to teach a lesson—whether moral, ethical, psychological, or even political— violence has usually been permitted. One of the earliest books published in English, Aesop’s Fables (1484), originally was meant for adults. It soon became a favorite of teachers, full of instructive tales frequently underscored by a violent punch line. Gullible animals always pay a mortal price to the clever foxes, hawks, and lions that prey upon them. The boy who cries wolf when there isn’t any danger, is not able to summon help when there is. When the trees of the forest agree to give the woodsman enough timber to make the handle for his axe, they fail to realize until too late that he will chop them all down.

A stomach for violence among the rough edges of pre-literate societies can hardly explain the presence of violence in a good number of more “refined” children’s classics, from the 19th century to the present. Violence is part of the fabric of the action-packed stories of Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper, just as it is in Dickens and Dumas, all of whom were read widely by boys and young men. The violence was even more pronounced and less justified by narrative brilliance when it invariably appeared in the inexpensive action literature of its time, the dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” that filled the popular imagination with tales of derring-do in exotic locales where young men dreamed of finding fame and fortune. Closer to home, Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have, at their heart, violent episodes that threaten the physical safety of their young heroes. In the case of Huck Finn, it shakes his sense of psychological invulnerability to the core. Huck is so powerfully affected by his dangerous journey down the Mississippi, the brutality of his alcoholic father, several horrendous mob scenes, and the sens less death of a young friend, that he refuses to go back up the river to civilization. “I been there before,” he says in the book’s closing lines.

Over the Rainbow and Right Next Door: Fictional Violence

As we move into the 21st century, we also see the presence of violence in the works of Rudyard Kipling, Howard Pyle, and Jack London, where violence is essential to the character-building in the novels’ young men. Even L. Frank Baum, who wished in The Wizard of Oz (1900) to write “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out,” could not quite manage to expel violence from his imagined world of Oz (p. 4).

If we leap forward to the present—over Tolkien’s battle-scarred landscape in The Lord of the Rings series and C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (a place which is redeemed through the sacrifice of its King, Asian) and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (in which a young wizard contends with the dark forces of his world)—we find a contemporary landscape of children’s books that is anything but violence-free, especially in the longer narratives meant for older children and adolescents. The wildly popular Harry Potter books, to pick just one example from the contemporary mix, are fueled by violent episodes and threats—from the abuse Harry receives from his human foster family, to the extremely dangerous sport he plays at the school for young wizards, to the life-or-death struggles that he engages in with evil characters who keep turning up. Interestingly enough, the controversy that these books have stirred does not concern possible violent physical harm in the story line, but rather the magic that is practiced throughout the series by the adults and young people.

It is one thing for there to be violence in fantasy literature where it could, presumably, be viewed as a part of the general nostalgia associated with fantasies that are set in other times, or galaxies “far, far away,” and another for the violence to be set in the present, “real” world. Thus, to the literalist’s way of thinking, there would be little danger of a teenager imitating the sword and sorcery violence of a work of high fantasy: it would be a physical impossibility. But since the 1960s, the fiction produced for teenagers and young adults has insisted on depicting the realities of life for young people. One of the key works to try to truthfully portray the experiences of adolescents was S. E. Hinton’s first novel, The Outsiders (1967). This was a sympathetic tale, told from a point of view inside a gang of teenage boys from the wrong side of the tracks, who are continually forced to protect themselves against another gang. The period’s other breakthrough work was Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), which regularly appears on banned books lists. However, the extreme nature of its violence is not the source of controversy: instead, it is the book’s language and the hero’s thoughts about sex. “They murdered him,” begins the first chapter, set at a high school football practice. This tone continues to the end when the hero is taken away in an ambulance, beaten senseless by the school bully, while a teacher nonchalantly comments, “Boys will be boys.”

These books were part of a long-standing discussion about violence that began in the United States in the late 1940s with a concern about the rise of juvenile crime and gangs. “Juvenile delinquency” became a common topic explored in Hollywood films like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Both of these movies made their respective young heroes, Marlon Brando and James Dean, instant stars. This growing separation between generations continued throughout the 1950s with the Beats, Elvis, and the youth movement of the 1960s. A generic stance was taken in these works against all forms of authority—parents, teachers, politicians, institutions—and the perceived hypocrisy and lack of sympathy in their treatment of the aspirations and yearnings of young people. The Vietnam War in the late 1960s became the ultimate symbol of these generational conflicts.

All was not quiet in picture books for younger children at this time either. Dr. Seuss suggested the unconscious rebelliousness in young people was about to break loose in The Cat in the Hat (1957). Seuss continued for three decades in books like The Lorax (1971) and The Butter Battle Book (1984) to satirize the destructive folly of “leaders” ravaging the environment and threatening to unleash another world war.

Maurice Sendak broke onto the scene with his award-winning Where the Wild Things Are (1962), about a little boy who tames the threatening creatures of his own imagination by “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.” Sendak created a map of the emotional and visionary terrain of childhood, where he dealt with subjects considered taboo for the writers of books for younger children— explosive anger, frustration, intense sibling rivalry, existential angst, and death.

Other writers and illustrators from the 1960s to the present—William Steig, Louise Fitzhugh, Tomi Ungerer, Eve Merriam, and Raymond Briggs, to name just a few—have worked with volatile, often violent material as an intrinsic part of their books and their vision. More recently we have seen picture books include larger, violent issues affecting our society, as artist David Diaz and author Eve Bunting did with their treatment of the Los Angeles race riots, Smokey Night (1994).

The New Unmediated Realities

If we add to these established literary forms the newer digital genres of video games and the Internet; the reenergized comics industry; and electronic media like television, movies, and popular music, we find that our children have returned to a new, immediately accessible Mother Goose world in which anything and everything is produced and available, almost instantly, for an audience that crosses generations and societal strata. Despite widespread parental concerns over the Internet and cable television, and some ability to filter obscene or violent images, there isn’t any comprehensive, socially agreed-upon structure of protection for children other than the problematic one of constant parental vigilance. At some point, most parents or concerned adults experience shock and stupefaction over children’s access to media that Ian Wojcik-Andrews describes in the introduction to his book, Children’s Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory (2000, p. 1). He writes:

My own understanding of children’s films grew out of various personal experiences. One day my then eight- and five-year-old boys Eric and Ryan came home from school declaring they had outgrown Barney, Sesame Street, Lamb Chop, Reading Rainbow, The Land Before Time, Ferngully, Fantasia, Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and were now old enough to watch instead cartoons such as The Power Rangers, The Centurions, Captain Planet, Dragon Ball Z, Swat Cat, Beavis and Buttbead, and South Park, and films such as Free Willy, Batman, Batman Forever, The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Starsbip Troopers. For Eric and Ryan, appropriate viewing no longer meant children’s shows such asSesame Street, but films for older viewers such as Scream.

The reasons for this breakdown in the separation between adult and children’s media have been extensively and continuously debated by Neil Postman (The End of Childhood, 1982) and many others. With regard to violence, exposure is pervasive in our culture from early childhood through adulthood. Regulation in a democratic, market-driven society seems impossible. The language and images of violence have taken over what one thinks of as our most reasoned, cautious levels of discussion and debate.

Currently, the visual and verbal vocabularies of war have come to occupy a prominent place in our contemporary environment, an environment that is clearly within the listening range of children. During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, both candidates spoke forcefully, repeatedly, explicitly about tracking down the terrorist enemies of America and killing them. The candidates themselves suited up, like action figures, ready to rumble in battle flight gear for the press, or in one case, carrying a shotgun over his arm. In this context, the ban on automatic assault rifles was allowed to expire without significant public debate. This potentially dangerous, sanctioned expansion of powerful weapons into everyday life was essentially ignored.

On every level, the unspoken message is that one best be well-armed. The enemy is at the gates. And young people, some in their teens, will be sent, as always, to fight in places around the world where enemies wait in ambush. Not only is the acquisition of real weapons a given in our culture, but virtual weapons and virtual violence are seen as providing a useful dimension of preparedness. The reflexes of our soldiers are being honed for combat through the “first-person shooter” video games that once shocked parent groups and led to age-appropriate ratings of the games. What purpose could these games possibly have, except to train young people to use weapons? Those concerns and questions seem absurdly rhetorical now. The inviolate sheltering of our children from violence has suddenly evaporated.

We are seeing a proliferation of toys, video games, animated films, anime, and movies unconcerned with the need to protect our young from the disquieting and potentially tragic effects of violence in their lives. Almost anything can be obtained via the Internet, including a new video game in which the player attempts to mimic the shots that claimed the life of the late President Kennedy from the vantage point of his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK Reloaded, 2004). Almost anything can be heard in contemporary music, including Eminem’s (2004) video, “Mosh,” in which the vice president suffers a heart attack before an angry mob of protesters. Virtually anything can be seen on television during the hours reserved for family viewing. According to the Parents Television Council, “the third most watched program on TV for children under fourteen” in 2004 was Fear Factor, which airs during family viewing time and includes having the contestants engage in gross and dangerous stunts, “everything from eating animal genitals to freeing themselves from a submerged body bag” (Sizemore, 2004). In fact, we now celebrate violent arch villains, like Uncle Olaf in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, or the “teenage criminal mastermind,” Artemis Fowl, in the series of novels by Eoin Colfer.

An Archetypal Hope: Shadow Work

Something is happening in our culture and another paradigm has shifted. In the 21st century, unlike the last, preemptive violence is once again redemptive and ultimately good. We have seen released in our culture, among children and adults, what the psychologist Carl Jung calls the shadow—that part of our individual and collective psyches that contains all that we do not wish to acknowledge about ourselves. In the United States, there is a new prevailing mythos, floated on certain national media, that refuses to see this country as anything but ultimately correct, profoundly exceptional, perfect in all its imperfections—indeed, chosen by God to fulfill its new destiny. What has been pushed aside by this particular Zeitgeist is any real sense of moral and ethical responsibility for our actions, the notion of playing by rules, of cooperation, of understanding other perspectives.

The novelist Ursula Le Guin (1980) offers an insightful summary of Jung’s concept of the archetypal shadow when she writes,

The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind. It is Cain, Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde. It is Virgil who guided Dante through hell, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu, Frodo’s enemy Gollum. It is the Doppelgänger. It is Mowgli’s Grey Brother; the werewolf; the wolf, the bear, the tiger of a thousand folktales; it is the serpent, Lucifer. The shadow stands on the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and we meet it in our dreams as sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide. It is all that we do not want to, cannot, admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which have been repressed, denied, or not used…. Unadmitted to consciousness, the shadow is projected outward onto others. There’s nothing wrong with me—it’s them. I’m not a monster, other people are monsters. All foreigners are evil. All communists are evil. All capitalists are evil. It was the cat that made me kick him, Mummy. … If the individual wants to live in the real world, he must withdraw his projections; he must admit that the hateful, the evil exists within himself. This isn’t easy. It is very hard not to be able to blame anybody else. But it may be worth it. Jung says, “If he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” (p. 64)

This shouldering of the burden of the shadow is addressed in Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, where the main character, Ged, charts his development into a wise adult from an enormously talented, enormously proud, enormously foolish teenager. This important journey of self-discovery serves as an example for both young people and adults about our personal confrontations with our own shadows. We can understand, on an abstract level, how our literature and art provide a kind of “container” for the violent darkness within us as individuals and our society as a whole.

The expression of the violent “other” in myths and stories, video games and movies, poetry and picture books, is one way we can make some sense of it, attempt to frame it and possibly gain some control over it. Children are constantly doing this in their own attempts to master the bogeymen and other “Wild Things” that inhabit their world. Like the rest of life, alas, some parts of children’s cultural experience will remain eternally violent, unruly, and unremittingly resistant to any forms of adult restraint. But, when we challenge children and adolescents over this material and seek to guide them through its emotional labyrinths, we also need to examine for ourselves our adult justifications and acceptance of violence in our homes, communities, country, and world. After all, we still have our own adult bogeymen to meet, daily.