Thursday, July 26, 2018

Life, Death, & Beatrix Potter

My eyes swept across the Children's Section of the library, and they settled on one particular bookcase. That tell-tale row of small books, standing together like a tidy row in a garden, could only be one thing: Beatrix Potter books.

"Look! We're going to get you a special book!" I cried, tugging my toddler's hand and scurrying over to that shelf. I had recently realized that my sweet boy, at two years old, needed to expand his literary taste beyond Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Goodnight, Mr. Darcy. I determined that we had reached the turning point in his life where he would meet Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and the other whimsical creatures that Beatrix Potter created.
We later ducked out of the hot Oklahoma sunshine and into the comfort of our living room, and I presented the book to my son. We began reading about Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. The next day, we returned to our place by the couch to learn about the adventures of Jemima Puddle-duck. As we read the story about this sweet, naïve duck who simply wanted to sit on her eggs, my eyes widened. The lovely illustrations provided a glossy, sweet image of a rather dark and grim story. We read it, though, and continued to read more stories from this wonderful author. 

As we read the words penned by Beatrix Potter, my thoughts have rested on the seemingly bleak content that enters these stories. Jemima Puddle-duck is-thankfully-saved from the fox who wants to eat her, but one of her rescuers eats all of the eggs and Jemima is led away in tears.  Mr. Jeremy Fisher is nearly eaten himself! And Peter Rabbit? He's told not to enter Mr. McGregor's garden because Peter's poor father was baked in a pie at the hands of Mrs. McGregor. 

While we could sit around and talk about theories for why Beatrix Potter brought rather dark content into her children's stories, I think the presence of these stories in children's literature itself begs to be discussed. Amid the "whatever keeps the kids happy" approach I've noticed that some people use in their parenting, Beatrix Potter's stories are unsettling. They don't seem to fit with the blissful atmosphere that is supposed to comprise early childhood.

Is childhood supposed to only include happy things? At least in my experience, it appears that many people believe superficial happiness is of the utmost importance. There have been several times when well-meaning strangers or friends have offered to placate my child if he shows signs of discontentment. Here, can I give him a snack? Is it okay if I buy him a toy? They cannot seem to bear hearing a child cry or act disgruntled for even a few seconds. Whether parents are exhausted (and, understandably, they don't want to deal with an upset child) or they truly want their young children to be in a good mood as much as possible, the reality remains that several people seek to keep their kids happy and entertained as much as possible. 

Yet, what happens when we try to completely shelter our young children from anything less than delightful? What happens when we fail to speak to them, albeit in an age-appropriate manner, about the real dangers and horrors of the world? What happens when we seek to shield them from the negative consequences that may come about from their actions? If we raise our children in complete ignorance of pain, suffering, sadness and hardship, how will we teach them to cope when life takes unexpected twists and turns?

As Lisa Baker notes, not only should we protect our kids, but we also need to prepare our them for life. We can help them practice skills and learn consequences from a young age. Instead of trying to shield them completely from any negative event, we can help them cope when suffering, sorrow, and pain come their way.

Lately, I've been reflecting on how I appreciate that, in our Catholic Faith, the concepts of death and suffering are naturally introduced into the lives of children from a young age. My toddler loves walking around the house with a crucifix, and he knows that the man hanging on the cross is Jesus-the Son of God, who died so that we can live with him in Heaven. Each year, we come to Mass on Ash Wednesday, and infants-like every other person who comes forward-receive ashes on their foreheads. 

Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gerome (1883).
Our children grow up hearing the stories of the martyrs, men and women who died witnessing to Christ. They may even dress up as martyrs-or other saints-for Halloween and All Saints Day. They read stories from the Bible about the suffering and persecutions that those in the early Church underwent. They are raised hearing the common refrain "Offer it up" when they don't want to eat their dinner or do their chores. They are taught to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy with their families. They learn to give of themselves and help those who are suffering. And in all of this, they see images of Our Crucified Lord hanging in our churches and in our homes, reminding them that we can all unite ourselves to Christ in times of suffering. 

Instead of trying to emphasize a "need" to suppress negative feelings and only pursue upbeat emotions, I think there can be a lot of good found in helping children learn how to acknowledge their feelings and deal with them appropriately. Beatrix Potter's stories are an excellent tool for this lesson; they teach us about suffering and death, but they also teach us how to live. They remind us that our actions have consequences. We may not be happy with those consequences, but life goes on, and we can work through what happened and move on as-hopefully-wiser individuals. 


  1. As a future parent, I've definitely thought about the question of suffering and what to expose children to, as well as how! I really like your points about Catholic children already being exposed through Jesus, offering things up, etc! What a treasure we have in our faith.

    1. It definitely is a big topic with so many aspects to consider! That's great that you're already thinking about it. And I'm sure that even when we think about it and try to nail down solid ideas of how to address these things, our approach will still vary from child to child, since all kids are different.

  2. When we read books like this, I like to view them as "teachable moments." It's the same when we read a Bible story about a tough topic or see a dead animal alongside the road.
    I don't try to hide these from my kids. I believe if I talk to them about things like death and suffering as they come up in books and in everyday encounters, it makes it easier for them to understand when serious things happen in their own lives.

    1. Shannon, I think it's so awesome that you do that! I like how you mention discussing things as they come up-I think there's a very real temptation (at least for me) in parenting to either not address stuff OR to overexplain everything even if we haven't encountered that yet.

  3. Good points AnneMarie. I think it’s so important to prepare kids for the real world and you’re clearly making a great effort to do that!

  4. These are such important topics to reflect on. I think of the Bible itself, and how many of the familiar stories are tough, are hard. I sometimes get frustrated with children's Bibles that gloss over the sadness and brokenness of the human relationships portrayed in the Bible a little too much, because yes, we have be age-appropriate in how we teach, but we shouldn't hide the truth of why this world needed Jesus so very much in the first place!