Our young friend Maddie recently celebrated her first birthday. Maddie loves berries and books! We do too! And thus, my partner and I gave her three books about berries.
One is a book about colors of fruit.
One is a counting book. Did you know that technically, grapes are berries?
And the other is a story. A cute little mouse finds a great big strawberry, but the narrator warns the mouse that a bear who lives in the woods would also like the strawberry. Bears are big and scary! As the narrator goes on and on, the mouse becomes more and more concerned. On one page, we see that the mouse has bound the berry in chains, holding the key to its padlock. On another page, both the mouse and berry are wearing Groucho disguises. Finally, the narrator makes a suggestion. The best way to solve the problem is for the mouse to cut the berry in half and share it. With the bear, I assumed? But no, that’s not suggested at all. With the narrator! And this is done, and having eaten half a humongous berry, the mouse is quite content.
My partner read me the story when the book first arrived, and I took it at face value. Today, though, before delivering the book to Maddie, I read it for myself. This time, I realized that, uh oh, the narrator was probably manipulating the mouse’s emotions to get some of the berry for themself. And while there’s an important role in literature for the “unreliable narrator,” who isn’t disclosing all their own knowledge and motivation to the reader, it hardly seems suitable to put the person reading aloud to the child in that role. Parent as trickster? Hm.
I grew up in what I now think of as a golden age for irony and meta-awareness in children’s media. My younger sister watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street back to back, and the contrast between them was striking. It wasn’t just the pace, although that’s obviously different too, but the tone. Mr. Rogers was always sincere and earnest (we made fun of him for that – sorry, Mr. Rogers!), while the viewer’s perspective of Ernie and Bert was often satiric, and all those hip animations like “Capital I” and “King of 8” were, well, gleefully absurd. With Sesame Street, at least the version we had back then, targeting older children than it does today, the kids were always encouraged to be savvy and aware that sometimes meaning comes in layers.
And before that, of course, we had The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, which often broke the “fourth wall,” making self-referential comments amidst the many silly puns and bizarre plot twists. As part of the Bullwinkle show, every week we were treated to an episode of “Fractured Fairytales,” a humorous parody of classic bedtime stories in which, at some point, the story is thrown completely off track. Bullwinkle and its other features were always teaching us that there’s more meaning behind the obvious and literal, that the more you know, the more it will make sense – and the funnier it will be! This series embodied the 1960s “Question Authority” theme, bring it into the home and serving it up to kids. (I loved it.)
I am 100% in favor of teaching young people to be aware of our world’s “narrators” and the fact that these narrators – our leaders and our media – have motives of their own. We especially need to be aware of this when these public “narrators” start telling us to do things that violate our basic principles, which happens all too often.
I’ve mentioned before that Gerard Saucier and I researched and wrote a paper on the mindsets of leaders trying to justify and promote extreme violence, like genocide, state terror, or treating others as expendable free labor. Just like us, the public these leaders were addressing had basic values about treating others decently, but if these others could be “Othered,” treated as either frightening threats or less-than-human impediments (or both), then these values could be set aside.
And one of the solutions that’s been proposed to counter this kind of harmful messaging is to teach the public skepticism, to look behind the literal meanings to see what the speaker really wants. Susan Benesch worked with Kenyan authorities to help “inoculate” people there against hate speech, using a popular television series to include episodes addressing these issues.
But there’s an important line to be drawn here, between “question authority” and “cynically reject the very idea of community.” Many people seem to think that developing a strong sense of irony and skepticism is a mark of adulthood, giving them “insider” standing. Yes… but some of them never make the transition beyond that, to a maturity where we have that meta-level perspective but still embrace what we might call community values, finding space in our lives for sincerity and earnestness and working together. (For example, I’m not convinced that my dad, whose birthday would have been tomorrow, ever quite got there.)
I think the bottom line is transparency. Yes, we should question authority and the messages those authorities give us. We should develop a good understanding of the perspectives of others, including those with power over our lives, whether government or media. We should require our leaders and media to disclose their interests (show us those tax returns, Mr. Trump).
With enough transparency, we can dare to trust each other. We do need government; we have collective goals that require collective action. And we do need sincerity and earnestness, the kind that requires embracing that meta-level perspective and the important information it gives us, but then goes beyond it.