Why Kids Need the Scary Stuff Too

Three years ago, my husband and I adopted two children–an African-American daughter and a Korean son–over a period of just seventeen months. During one of our adoption homestudy visits, I remember scrambling to move a large framed print of a green devil from view in our TV room. Yet, the framed Korean mask dance figures which appeared far scarier to me at the time, remained on display. This was my choice, of course, but I felt it was dictated by expectations of our family and household. “Multiculturalism” is good, “devil” is bad.
But what happens when they intersect and “multiculturalism” equals “devil”?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of folklore, how we as Americans are so far removed from it, and how much better we could understand ourselves and others if we treated folklore as a more valid tradition. We often don’t know, or dismiss, the folklore we started with, and it can be easy to respond to other cultures’ folklore as primitive, unenlightened, or something for which “getting past” is an achievement.
People can reject other cultures’ folk figures and rituals as “too scary” for our kids to see or participate in. Some of what is “scary” is universal, but some isn’t, and there is often a fine line between scary and beautiful (think “Toddlers and Tiaras”). It’s not that hard to move from one side to the other and back again, as well. David Sedaris wrote in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men” that when visiting other countries, he often engages cab drivers and hotel clerks in initial conversation about their native lands that includes questions about animal onomatopoeia and their Christmas customs. (This actually says more about Sedaris’ globetrotting than he might have originally intended, since such customs are celebrated in only a select fraction of the world.) While his essay centers on what he learns about Christmas traditions in Amsterdam–and how foolish our version of Santa’s “elves” appear compared to their “Black Pete’s” as St. Nick’s helpers–it focuses mostly on our tendency to easily pigeonhole a “foreign” tradition, and to quickly react to what appears to us to be “politically incorrect,” “frightening” or “violent”.
A few years ago, a friend turned me on to Krampus. Krampus is a pre-Christian folklore figure who has maintained a life in the Alpine regions as well as throughout Germany, the Czech Republic and some parts of Italy. He is the “punisher” who accompanies Saint Nikolas, and his family members include figures such as Perchta (who checks to see that young girls have been keeping up on spinning their flax and wool and eviscerates them if they have not) and the Buttnmandl, who is a cross between a Krampus and a walking stack of hay. Krampus is a lively character, interpreted over many years on postcard art, baked goods and handmade and mass-produced costumes. He is depicted as a horned devil figure, often in chains, with black fur and a long red tongue. Krampus threatens to whip children who misbehave but can also take back their presents or carry them off into the woods to eat them. Last year, I knitted my kids a “teddy Krampus”, and this year, in Philadelphia, I am planning a somewhat traditional Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Aside from my own interest in mask-making and fiber arts, my intention is to expose my children to this exciting tradition–something a little beyond the Coca Cola Santa.
In talking to community members, particularly parents, about our event, I have received a similar breakdown of responses. While about half the people say, “Wow, cool!” the others are very guarded and want to know why. Why should Christmas be scary? Why would you expose your kids to that?
My event co-organizer, Janet Finegar is the one with the degree, so I asked her how she defended the impulse. “Folklorists have been saying for a long time—at least since Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, that kids really need the dark stuff. Make that “people” need the dark stuff—remember that most folklore is presumed to be for people in general, not for kids.” In her relationship with her ten year-old daughter, she continued, “this translates to me having told her that I don’t think she’ll ever be harmed by knowledge. Confused, sometimes, sure, but not harmed. I tell her the truth about things, including when the truth is ‘this child you know is very sick and may die,’ or ‘mommy is very very angry at daddy right now but won’t be in a while.’ But I also tell her a) what daddy and I are doing to protect her from similar dangers and b) that it’s never worse than what I’ve said. We don’t lie to her—there aren’t scarier things lurking in the shadows. If I’ve said monsters aren’t real, it’s true, because I’ll admit to the monsters that are real and try to tell her how to avoid them.
“I think the Krampus comes out of a very similar philosophy, though I think many people wouldn’t have felt the need to call it a philosophy, because it used to be called just childraising…Bad things happen, evil exists in the world, and it looks really, really dreadful—here’s a thought about what it looks like. If we admit that the evil is there, we can deal with it. The monster out of the shadows is easier to cope with than the monster in the shadows or the questions about what those big secrets mommy and daddy won’t tell you might be.”
People tend to overestimate what is scary to a child and what isn’t, by superimposing their own sensitivities–and their perceptions of their child’s sensitivities–over things that otherwise would seem very face value. A parent’s job is to comfort their child, but sometimes we jump the gun and begin comforting before any clear indication of “fear” has shown itself. Our action is seen by our child as a reaction, a cue to be afraid. I remember, as a three- or four-year-old, one of my prized possessions was a vinyl LP of sound effects for haunted houses or Halloween parties. “Sounds to Make You Shiver” promised, in dripping letters across the front cover, “BLOODCURDLING! TERROR! HORROR!”
I was not at all frightened by the monsters on the LP cover, nor by the sounds inside, but BLOODCURDLING! TERROR! HORROR! sat uncomfortably with me for my whole life—and in grade school I realized that it was because “bloodcurdling” had no object attached to it. The equal distribution of exclamation points across these three words seemed to suggest that someone thought them equal in threat. And yet, one adjective with two nouns is what bothered me most about “Sounds to Make You Shiver”, an item that I am sure would be banned from any grade school today, no matter how fun it might make Halloween (also banned or sanitized in many schools).
Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids” blog occasionally references facets of folklore, nursery rhymes or religious texts deemed too scary. A reader reported about a children’s Bible which described Jesus’ death as the time where he merely “went away”, which “kind of destroys one of the central tenets of Christianity,” the reader commented. On British television, the nursery rhyme of “Humpty Dumpty” was retold so that he didn’t need to be “put together” again—as he had never actually, according to the new telling, broken. “Why do we think we are helping our kids by assuming that a nursery rhyme that delighted several hundred years’ worth of children is suddenly too much for this current generation to bear?” Skenazy wrote in her post.
We are the ones, as adults and parents, who hint to children that other cultures and their ways are “scary”. And when we aren’t doing that, we are “exposing” them to other beliefs and cultures by offering them only the most inoffensive rituals. I recall the smirking and giggling brought on, when we third-graders were forced to play games ostensibly beloved by American Indian children (as per our Social Studies textbook) that—without any real emotional context—seemed both trivial and stultifyinly boring. Even in our initial forays into international adoption, we were forced to play Yut Nori on the floor with other nervous, prospective parents. We try a lot of things on for size when it comes to Korean culture but Yut Nori is just downright lame.
Why have European children enjoyed, for so long, the legends of Krampus, Perchta and Buttnmandl? Why have boys grown into fathers who share the same with their children? Why do cultures closer to the earth and their roots—those more exposed to the whims of weather and fate, and therefore different social and economic challenges—welcome the presence of folkloric figures? Undoubtedly, it is nice to have someone to run and hide from successfully. Here in Philadelphia, a friend who is a children’s librarian in a very challenging neighborhood recently heard kids comparing acts of violence to which they had been exposed. The winner of the conversation ended with, “My mom tried to drown me when I was four—and I didn’t even cry.” Folklore—and not just happy folklore—can benefit children and help channel misplaced feelings.
Keeping all that folklore positive can also backfire. It was, indeed, the neighborhood in which I was raised—lower middle-class and surrounded by families with lower economic means—that proved to me that Santa Claus was not “real”. Comparing the cheap, bargain-store items my friends had received for Christmas to the gifts I had been given, was initially something I could not reconcile. But it later provided evidence not only that Santa was a myth, but that I was reaping the benefits of this myth more than many. How was this same myth experienced by my playmates who came to my house on the day after Christmas to see how much more I had received from Santa than they had? What message did this jolly, happy Santa who delivers presents to all good children send to them?
According to Ms. Finegar, because “we never feel like we’re as good as we should be, we all feel our own selfishness and hidden agendas—so we make a character who is all good and giving and kind and let all the complicated feelings go there. Mommy didn’t give you that extravagant present because she feels bad about your clothes being raggedy the rest of the year—Santa gave it to you because he’s all good. (And if presents don’t come, it’s Santa’s fault, not mommy’s).”
Because Santa sends a very complicated message the minute one steps away from one’s own Christmas tree and outside of one’s home, Krampus, seems a more equal opportunity guy, if you ask me. Smacked with a birch switch, tossed in a sack or a frozen river—common punishments Krampus inflicts—is all pretty much the same thing when none of it really happens. As my kids poured over a book of Victorian Krampus postcards last year—keep in mind, they were two year olds then—it was noted that Krampus had no brown nor Korean kids in his clutches. This seemed to relieve both of my kids. While they know Krampus can “take” you, we have never seen it happen. When discussing what might happen, we have been insistent that he would unfailingly also return them. We heard our daughter, Claudia, tell a neighbor that “Krampus will take you to his house—and you will watch boring grown-up TV and have to eat spicy vegetables. Then he brings you home.” Since my children are exposed to boring grown-up TV and spicy vegetables in the safety of their own home as well, apparently the big punishment here is the time wasted on the round trip.
Participating in the folklore of other cultures not only blurs the fine line between ugly/scary and beautiful, but it blurs the line between “us” and “them”. There are Krampus and Perchta masks that look a lot like Korean mask dance figures, and straw covered Buttnmandl who resemble African pageant figures. What if, in participating in something that resonates with us emotionally, we are able to tap into our shared consciousness—one that knows no national or even continental or temporal boundaries?
If we can continue to blur those lines to create our oneness, maybe we can then sharpen the boundaries between real and imagined threats. We would be giving our children greater reserves to deal with the very real challenges that life sets before them, rather than depleting those reserves by avoiding what we insist is “too much”—too much freedom, too much ugliness, too much truth—for them to bear.
Note: Parts of this article were previously published in the Autumn 2011 edition of the Korean Quarterly.



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