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Useful And Fantastic: Applied Imagination - 6

Val Yule tells of the educational and cathartic effects of children's stories.


Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment (1975) claims that traditional fairytales and legends give symbolic form to everyone’s personal psycological quests, and give messages of how to face despair with hope and courage.

Children are also ‘Users of Enchantment’ in how they draw on and reshape fairy stories for their own needs. This was brought home to me by a thirteen-year-old boy in distress. For hours that morning he had been hurling matchbox cars against the wall. He had spent his life in orphanages, and now he had just been told that the family he desperately hoped would adopt him was going overseas without him. At a loss, I said, ‘Tell me a story’. To my surprise, he responded immediately, and sat up and told me this story, as if it was sitting at the top of his head:

‘Once upon a time there was a mother goose who hatched out say sixteen eggs. They all hatched out except one which later cracked, and out popped an ugly duckling. They all waddled to the pond for the mother to teach them how to swim, all but the ugly duckling. He jumped in first and honked. When the mother and the ducklings went in the water they all had a swim and later on they all climbed on the mother’s back, including the ugly duckling. The mother knocked him off, and he climbed on again. He jumped back on, only to land in the water again, and he was left in the pond all by himself. Amen.’

‘How did the story end?’

The boy smiled for the first time. ‘He grew up into a beautiful swan.’

The interesting thing about this prophecy is that he did. That was over thirty years ago. He found a loving foster-family, and the last time I saw him, he was a fine young man bringing his lovely girlfriend to meet us. Since then, other children have told me stories that held their future as well as their past. It has taught me that the story that a child loves may possibly play a strong part in creating his own future. The Ugly Duckling has often been re-told to me since. Most of the tellers have been children having a hard time finding love or recognition.

Children who respond with a fairy story to ‘Tell me a story, any story you like,’ often retell Cinderella, in many versions. Some emphasize magic wish fulfillment of their needs or desires, such as horrible siblings get their come-uppance, or finding a dream prince, or wearing dreamy dresses. Others focus on being rewarded for goodness. This story has most symbolic importance for children who feel neglected, rejected, persecuted or handicapped. One little boy in an orphanage drew a Cinderella who looked like a plump Dutch biddy, more maternal than beautiful, and more likely to cuddle little boys than to romance with a prince.

Little girls can learn more than passivity from fairy-stories, even from Snow-White or ‘Sleppin Beaut’, stories that feminists have deplored. A Turkish girl had been withdrawn from school at thirteen to live in seclusion, and was referred by worried truant authorities. She told me, as she sat in her exotic Turkish embroidered clothes and turned-up silken slippers, jangling her bracelets and earrings, how she was very happy to stay home until a marriage was arranged for her. But the story she told me was a long and elaborated re-telling of Rapunzel, and it ended with ‘And she never saw her parents ever again’.

Disadvantaged Australian children would tell stories about snow, and about sinking ships, although they had never seen either. They were symbols of their experiences and feelings, along with fire, or mud, or witches, or boys who ran far far far far far far far far far far far far away.

'This is a story about a sinking ship.

You might like this one.

The ship that I just drawed was a warship.

It battled and fighted for our country.

I forgot one thing.

The ship sunk then.

That’s an Australian sign there.

Old cannon - it got a cannonball through there.

It was a brave ship.’

The seven-year-old orphanage boy who told this story was in hospital after he had been found unconscious in a paddock two days after a teenager had bashed him with an iron bar and left him there.

Some children have no stories or legends to give them courage or hope. They take symbols of their emotions and experiences from the world around them. I have been told many very short sombre stories like this one, told about a drawing of an girl with no arms by the unwanted eight-year-old child of a deserted alcoholic immigrant mother:

'She’s standing there. A man’s gonna pick her up. She - uh - er - the man gonna kill her! Then the amblelan will come. Then she’ll die.’

Several thousand free drawings and stories told in one-to-one situations, show how children’s imaginations are also shaped by their culture and entertainment. Disadvantaged and disturbed girls and younger disadvantaged boys told more stories about victims. Their stories showed most ‘feminine’ indicators, that is, features more common in girl's stories than in boy's - such as girls' common use of the world 'little', which is hardly ever used by boys, and boys' common use of the world 'big', only rarely used by girls. A small but significant detail.

Stories by disadvantaged boys aged over seven, were more likely to be about aggressors, and show most ‘masculine’ indicators. Stories by girls at suburban public schools were more likely to be frivolous and trivial, and about playing games, or pets. Stories by suburban boys and by girls at private schools were more likely to involve problem-solving, to end constructively, and to show a mix of both feminine and masculine indicators.

It happened that some Greek immigrants from a rural peasant area settled in a poorer Melbourne suburb, and their children attended the local disadvantaged school there, while similar compatriots from the same area settled in a pocket of socio-economic disadvantage in a middle-class suburb, and their children's school was middle-class. A study by the Catholic Education Office showed the effects of that chance distribution. At Year 1 both groups were similar but at Year 6 their stories showed the effects of their different environments. Chance resulted in significant differences in the children’s imagination, as well as increasing differences in their intellectual achievements – and their opportunities in life.

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