Uses and Misuses of Enchantment

Just as one of the features of the poster described at the beginning of this essay raised issues about the distinction between practices that foster self-esteem and those that encourage self-preoccupation, another feature of the poster suggested some points relevant to the uses and misuses of enchantment. Note that the medium through which the poster's self-centered message was promoted is a cute, smiling, talking animal! Though this common practice is not directly related to those designed to promote self-esteem, it is related to a general tendency to sweeten and amuse children into "feeling good" and having fun rather than being involved, absorbed, and challenged. In particular, to the extent that every learning environment communicates to children what is important and valuable in the eyes of those who provide it, the decor of early childhood and elementary classrooms emphasizes what is cute, frivolous, and trivial and also misrepresents children's interests. This emphasis is not only questionable on aesthetic and pedagogical grounds—it also may distract children from achieving self-esteem derived from appreciating and interacting with the real world and one's real capacities to contribute to it.

In early childhood settings all over the country, one can see pictures of smiling, talking animals conveying messages to children about rules and routines, often in blazing, flashy colors. One example is a large poster depicting a rabbit, mouse, and bear sitting around a table. The caption says, "Be a good listener. Help others work and learn. Be thoughtful." Among others are pictures of a chick with a bow tie saying to an elephant and a giraffe, "Let's read a story"; a bear seated at a desk saying, "Be a good student"; a squirrel separating a combatant rabbit and horse, saying, "Talking helps settle differences"; sad-faced animals captioned, "We all have feelings." Another example is a whole wall of a kindergarten classroom covered with a depiction of Humpty Dumpty perched on a wall, saying, "Welcome to School." (Could children made a connection between Humpty Dumpty's fall and their future careers at the school?) Signs indicating the subjects of books in an elementary school library all featured animals reading, and at the entrance a picture of a cat titled "Purr-fectly quiet please!" These kinds of displays are more fanciful than imaginative.

These and many similar posters and bulletin board displays seem to exemplify misuse of the natural appeal that enchanting creatures have for children and even for adults. This phrase is used in contrast to the title of Bettelheim's (1975) well-respected book called The Uses of Enchantment, in which he presents eloquent arguments that fairy tales and the like provide children with pretexts and contexts for working out the inevitable conflicts and dark feelings experienced by all children. However compelling is the logic of his exposition, he produces no evidence from child development research that supports his assertion that enchanting tales help children. Researchers have produced no definitive evidence that they are harmful either.

The argument here is that our efforts to make children feel comfortable and cosy by surrounding them with pictures of cuddly creatures are unnecessary and phony. Instead, live animals, and photographs of real ones, would be appropriate and could evoke children's deep interest in them. It is more appropriate to support and appreciate children's own capacities for fantasy than to impose adults' fantasies on them. Most of our children have plenty of exposure to cartoons and the like outside of school. It would be interesting to observe children's responses to being surrounded with real art, especially native and folk art in all its variety in pottery, baskets, macrame, and quilts, as well as in many graphic forms.

The practices described above seem to reflect a dichotomous or conflicting approach to children in our culture. On the one hand, we feel compelled to surround them with silly creatures and to justify many activities on the grounds that they are fun and amusing rather than interesting and absorbing. On the other hand, we introduce children to "stranger danger," instruct them in ways to resist physical and sexual abuse, and provide them with information about nutrition, drugs, and—in some kindergartens— AIDS, before they can understand and cope with such serious matters. Young children need the protection of adults against such hazards.

The issue underlying the practices described here—namely, those that confuse self-esteem with narcissism and those that misuse enchantment—is authenticity versus phoniness. Engaging children in investigations and close observation of their real worlds in ways that respect their lively intellects, and that provide opportunity for effort and real problem solving is more likely to foster healthy self-esteem than are amusement, flattery, and praise for cheap success at frivolous tasks.


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