A while back I wrote about some of my son’s favorite books and was looking for pictures of them on the interwebs. I came across a review of one of our all-time classics, Harry and the Terrible Whatzit.
It’s a story that Younger Son always loved. He went through a very fearful phase and we had a whole stack of books specifically about dealing with fears (and he loved each and every one of them, and still gets excited when he comes across them). I loved Harry because it’s an old-fashioned book from the ’70s with quaint pictures and no marketing involved.
It’s about a little boy who’s afraid to go in the basement to look for his missing mother. But he needs to find her! So Harry plucks up his courage and goes in the basement, and of course there’s a Terrible Whatzit down there. He starts beating it with a broom.
Here’s what the review said:
“I almost hesitate to recommend this book to other parents and teachers because it shows a little boy hitting someone (or something) else. And hitting isn’t a message I want to send to the little boys out there.”
OK, let’s not panic here.
The story is about empowerment! It’s about defeating the boogie men who live in the closet!! It’s not saying that you should literally carry around a broom for beating people!
Kids know the difference between reality and books. Would there really be a two-headed warty troll in the basement? No. So you wouldn’t need to beat it with a broom. But when Harry hits it, the troll shrinks and eventually runs away. It’s an ingenious way to show kids metaphorically that if they face their fears, they can overcome them.
Who wasn’t afraid to go in the basement? I still remember the fear that would rise in my chest from just looking into that dark, brick-lined pit. The value of a book like this is in being able to pinpoint that feeling and teach a child how to overcome it without lecturing. And to show that maybe the thing you’re afraid of isn’t so big and bad, and you’re smart and tough enough to handle it. Like my friend Natalie told me the other day, “You’re so much stronger and braver than you give yourself credit for.” We all need to hear that every now and then.
There is violence throughout literature because there is violence throughout life. I understand that there is a point in trying to shield our kids from it (such as the WWE, God help me my sons idolize mulleted insane muscle freaks). But we can’t totally. Violence is part of human nature.
Teaching kids not to be violent is a daily, ongoing process, during which we show them that all kinds of behavior aren’t acceptable. Instead we teach them how to treat people in a respectful way.
You know, probably by explaining about not going around hitting them with brooms, and stuff like that.
The best way to teach non-violence is to live it. Most kids would never see you beating anything with a broom unless you had a raccoon in your garage. We teach by how we live. If they see you being courteous, treating people with respect, and apologizing when you’re wrong, then they’ll know how to do these things too. And hopefully we can show them how to protect themselves from violence a little bit, too (but that’s another post).
For example, Older Son was worried that he’d hurt someone during a basketball game and didn’t know what to do. I told him next time something like that happens, just pat the guy on the shoulder and say, “Sorry about that, are you ok?” Easy. But until I gave him the simple steps, he didn’t know what to do.
I have another old ‘70s book in my collection of classics called Sunday Morning by Judith Viorst. We discovered it when my kids were about 7 and 5. In it a parent threatens the kids with a spanking if they’re not quiet. The first time we read it Younger Son turned to me and asked, “What’s a spanking?”
Can I say that was one of my proudest moments as a mother without looking like a self-satisfied jerk? But kids will come across a lot of things in books that they’ve never actually seen happen in real life.
So people, be not afraid. Read “Harry and the Terrible Whatzit” and fight monsters and slay dragons. Your kids will feel powerful and strong and maybe next time (or, a year from now) you won’t have to go in the basement with them.