I have nothing against `moral’ stories. I grew up listening to them, reading them. Every story invariably ended with the moral of the story is… and here is where I would dis-connect from the story. The moral seemed as much fiction as the story itself. An ideal world that did not resonate with what I experienced around me. The Lion and the Mouse, the Ant and the Grasshopper, Cinderella, Snow white….
Now, I am on the other side of the story-time. The story-teller. And am faced with a dilemna. Some days it is easy. When David kills Goliath it was easy to go with the `We should never say I can’t; we should always try’ that one child proffered.
But, when the tortoise wins the race against the hare, `hard work always succeeds’ raised a sense of unease in me. Just as it had done all those years ago. When I was a kid their age, listening to the story. I had suspected then that hard work did not always succeed. Today I know it does not. Not always. Tough luck. Deal with it.
It is all very fine in an ideal world where rules are fair, they are transparent, they are followed and are impartially enforced. Would the tortoise win in the real world? Should it not have played smart rather than plodding along to defeat (except in the story, of course)? Shouldn’t THAT be the moral of the story?
Will telling these stories with unrealistic morals set these kids up for dis-illusionment? Are we preparing them to handle it then? When they `adapt’ their behaviour to the requirements of this world will they be left with a vague sense of unease, of being `bad’? Is that okay? On the other hand, is it good that they have the moral compass these stories shape even if they can’t live up to it all the time?
I have not settled on any answers yet. But my story telling sessions are becoming a little more `grey’ on the learning bit.
In an episode of Friends, Phoebe tells stories to little children at a school. The parents are horrified by her stories but the kids – they lap it up and come looking for more from the `lady who tells the truth’. I would like to bring a little, just a little bit, of that truthfulness into my sessions.
When Vaman crushes Mahabali one voice piped up – the moral of the story is that bad people will always be punished by God. I groaned inwardly. One voice asked ` So was Mahabali bad?’ I clutched at it like the proverbial straw by the drowning man. `What do you think?’ I countered. `He gave so many gifts to people’, `But he was so proud’,`He wanted to rule all the kingdoms’, ` He fought God’, `The people liked him that is why they want him to come back every year’. Confused faces. No clear single answer. We settled on ` He was not bad. He did some bad things. We all do bad things sometimes. But God punished him so that everyone knows it is bad to be greedy. And proud’
I am not entirely pleased. Not even entirely sure what message this story can convey to eight year olds. But I am happy because I think moving away from labeling someone bad to recognising the good as well as the bad in their actions is progress.
What do you think? Do you know stories that serve as good springboards for nuanced understanding of the world? Do tell…..