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Bedtime Stories: How Scary is Too Scary?

This article is an excerpt from John Olive’s Tell Me a Story in the Dark.


Click to tweet:When you read a child a story you are letting her know that she is part of a loving family, with a tradition of support she can depend on.

Are we really going tell, or read, our beautifully innocent children a story filled with life-and-death melodrama, howling orcs, homicidal orgres (“I smell the blood of an Englishman! I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”), drooling wolves, wicked witches, and then sashay into the living room, leaving Sweetness Incarnate all a-tremble, facing a nightmare-filled sleep?


The logical answer would seem to be, “No! Never!” Our instinct is to protect our children. We can’t expose them to violence and death, thievery and vicious selfishness, racism and sexism, all those nasty societal bugaboos we see everywhere we look. At night, as they face the dangerous dark, we want to read them, tell them, nice stories, gentle stories, tales featuring big rock candy mountains and oh-so-perfect heroes.

Don’t we?

Well. This censorious, protect-the-child-at-all-costs approach can backfire. It can alienate our young charges and propel them into cynical and money-mad arms of Hollywood and video game producers.

How does this happen?

Here’s a not necessarily palatable fact: the inner lives of children are darker, angrier, and even (I hesitate to say this, but it’s true) more violent than we care to admit. Your child – let’s call her Natalie – knows she is not always good. Natalie steals sweets. Or she wants to. She hits other children. Or fantasizes about it. No one, Natalie thinks, is as bad as I am.

But read Natalie a story that acknowledges a dark side to human behavior and we’re telling her that this kind of behavior, or fantasy, is normal. We can tell her a story about a wolf who devours a sweet old lady without worrying that Natalie will do this herself.

She’s okay. We love you, Natalie, and we always will.

Stories are good for Natalie, however disturbing they might be and she knows this in her bones. The orcs are always defeated by intrepid heroes – ordinary people just like Natalie. The witches always melt (“Who’d’ve thought,” the Wicked Witch cries in Oz, “that a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”). Hansel and Gretel always find their way back home. Grandma is not dead in the wolf gullet. Endings in story-land are always happy.

And: you are there, to offer guidance, your ineffable wit, your reassuring presence, the wisdom of age.

And love. Because when you read, or tell, a child a story you are letting her know that she is part of a loving family, with a tradition of support she can depend on. And she always will be.

Now: you know your child and I don’t. But I would bet that he or she can deal with more scariness that you think. A lot more. So tell away would be my advice.

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:

Tonight, don’t read your child a story. Instead, dim the light, lie down, and create storytelling magic. Weave a spell that will enchant your child. . .
Written by an award-winning playwri…

Tell Me a Story in the Dark

John Olive

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John Olive is a widely produced (Manhattan Theatre Club, Old Globe, ACT/Seattle, South Coast Rep, the Guthrie, and many others) and award-winning (Fellowships from the Bush and McKnight Foundations, from National Endowment For The Arts, a Kennedy Cen… Read More


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