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Tales from Nux Gallica

Like my blog's namesake, the magic nutshell of folklore, my two-year-old daughter Nux Gallica's tiny skull never ceases to amaze me with its magical contents.

I have an uneasy relationship with popular fairy tales. I love them, of course. I'm fascinated with them, but I'm obsessed with criticizing the horror, misappropriation, misogyny, and commercialization that saturates them. I provide my daughter, Nux Gallica, with wholesome and girl-empowering books to read, but she is naturally drawn toward popularized fairy tales, as inevitably as Hansel and Gretel were lured to the gingerbread house. But I go ahead and watch the Disney movie with her. I read her the propaganda tale. And I ask her to engage with me about it.

"You read it to me this time," I say. Before I censor or correct anything I think might be harmful or confusing to her, I feel out her own interpretation. We adults do so much projecting onto our children. So most of the time, when I ask Nux to tell or interpret the stories, I am delighted and surprised by what I hear.

We read an abridged version of Hans Christien Anderson's The Little Mermaid, complete with illustrations of a mermaid girl who looks remarkably like Nux with aqua hair. The next time she asked me to read it to her, I told her it was her turn. When we got to the part when the sea witch gives the mermaid a potion to make her grow legs, Nux turned to me and asked, "But what if a fish drank the potion instead?"

Rene Magritte, 1937

When the mermaid learns that her handsome prince is going to marry another woman, Nux said, "That's okay. She goes to another castle and gets another prince."

In a children's book version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the Beast is crabby because his teacup is broken, and also because he doesn't like to share his toys (the magic flower and mirror). The wolves are not villainous monsters in the forest but respectable animals who have families to feed. "This is the mommy wolf, this is the sister wolf, and this is the brother wolf." Gaston is not welcome inside the castle simply because he didn't take off his muddy boots at the door. And the Beast does not turn into a prince at the end--he turns into a dirty guy who "needs to change his clothes," while Mrs. Potts turns into a princess--you can tell because "she has a princess dress on." Belle, she insists, marries Gaston at the end, because "she likes him." Nux doesn't understand that he's dead--she thinks he just got sent home for hitting.

Nux used to love the story "The Little Red Hen," because the hen does everything by herself and doesn't share her bread at the end. She has entered a developmental phase of life when she appreciates the benefits of cooperating and sharing, so now when she tells the story, the neighbors do help the hen with each stage of the process, and the hen does share her bread with them all.

With startling wisdom, Nux argues with me during "The Ugly Duckling" that the other ducklings do not really dislike the one that is different; "It's just the mommy and daddy duck who don't like him." 

Nux's favorite characters are often the bad or scary ones, but she doesn't see them as truly or completely bad. She loves seeing pictures of witches, wicked fairies, and "scary guys." She turns to me and says reassuringly, "They aren't really bad, though. They will learn to be nice."

I love asking Nux how she interprets narratives and listening carefully to what she says. The things she comes up with are often hilarious, but I try to listen seriously anyway. She's at a magical stage of life when her views of the world are still naive and innocent in many ways but savvy beyond her years in others. She's transparent with me about her beliefs, values, wishes, and fears, and they are not always what I would have guessed. The stories we read and hear and see do not always teach good values, but I'm trying to start the practice early of thinking critically about them and honestly discussing them.

I do try to divert Nux's interest toward books and media with positive messages and educational value, but I'm also trying to build her critical thinking skills and resilience when she encounters something dark, scary, or confusing. And instead of dampening her attraction toward glitzy pop culture, I'm trying to inspire her to let seemingly shallow stories spark her creativity.

So far, I think it's working. A few months ago, I gave in to Nux's request for a Finding Nemo coloring book. I've been warned that coloring books teach children to "stay in the lines" and ignore their creative impulses, but Nux quickly let me know I didn't have to worry about that with her. She frowned at a boring outline of Nemo and his father before painting green swirls in front of their faces. "Nemo and his daddy are dragons now," she declared, "and they breathe green fire." On the next page, she painted black streaks on Nemo's face and said, "Nemo is crying black tears." (I swear, I don't listen to heavy metal with the child. I have no idea where she got this.) On the next page, she festooned all the characters with rainbow-colored party hats to celebrate a birthday.

Listening to the narratives she tells, I'm observing that Nux has a thing for "bad" boys and girls (something to keep in mind as she starts to make friends!), believes that everyone has the ability to learn how to do better (so good for her to believe about herself, and also something to be cautious about as she forms relationships with others), and has her daddy's wild sort of creativity (something to nurture).

The balancing act of seeking a path between mindless consumption and censorship, the middle path of active participation in a very loosely defined zone of acceptable and attractive narratives, is one that requires a lot of careful attention. But it's a fun path, full of unexpected delights and valuable discoveries that might help prevent unpleasant surprises down the road.

Parent friends, how has your child responded to a familiar story in a way that surprised you? What did you learn about your child?

Come back on the first Friday Monday of every month for more Middle Path Mother.


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