While I was recently hosting my granddaughters and their friends, I explored what they are interested in as teens. We talked about the kind of reading material available to them in Jewish periodicals, and I learned that many of the “kosher” stories involve plots of espionage, murder, kidnapping, foreign agents, and other dastardly deeds. This left me wondering about the kinds of messages these stories are imparting in our children, the values they are absorbing, and the internal need these stories are attempting to fill in our religious youth.
The purpose of a story is to vicariously allow the reader to experience the action of the story, thus releasing tension in his own life. A story functions very much like a game insofar as the role it takes in a child’s psychological life. Stories and games trigger a degree of suspense. They stimulate the mind and operate on a set of assumptions, rules, and objectives. At the end of a story, we are either the winner or the loser. For a story to attract attention, there must be an element of suspense and intrigue that keeps the reader hooked. The doubt and uncertainty of the protagonist’s journey are what keep the reader engaged. Secondly, the story should stimulate the reader’s imagination, so they think in the abstract about the plot and worry about the possible outcome. They identify with the characters and their challenges, and care about the main character’s (or hero’s) outcome. Stories operate on certain assumptions about relationships, society, reality, and the implicit values the author believes in about what is right and acceptable, and what is wrong and unacceptable. When the reader finishes the story, he rejoices when the hero (or good guy) wins, and gloats when the antagonist (or bad guy) is punished.
What is being sold today as entertaining reading for our young people? Many of the stories involve tragic events, sinister spies, violence, and a world full of evil people who threaten and stalk, plotting to detonate explosives and steal secrets. Parents and educators should ponder whether the suspense and excitement created in the stories is “relatable,” imbuing the reader with tools to implement in their own life, or whether they instill fear, distrust, and wariness about the world and their own relationships and lives. As for stimulating the imagination, let’s look at the neuroscience of our psychological processing. The human mind is a wonderful and intricate instrument. It can utilize reason and logic or drift into fantasy and feeling. Imagination is where those diverse functions converge. An active imagination draws on thoughts, feelings, facts, images, and make-believe. What we feed our mind will shape the direction and content of our imagination. A child uses his imagination whether or not we “teach” him to imagine. It’s a neurocognitive “given” that the mind daydreams, invents, creates, and also regresses when imagination or fantasy rules over consciousness. We cannot stop that, nor do we want to stop that process, which actually helps over time to bring forth a balanced mental state where thought and emotion can play healthy concurrent roles. One can, however, cultivate the content of his or her imagination and direct it toward greater mental health, stability, realism, and even sanity. As parents and educators, we must examine the quality of the reading material our young people are reading, whether books, magazines, cartoons, or other print material, to see if it provides the positive, uplifting, inspirational content and values that we hope populates our children’s minds.
Are they living (while in the imaginary world of the book) in a society where people, rules, expectations, goals, values, and activities are consistent with the standards we inculcate in our children? Do our children think that the world of the story is an accurate representation of life? Is Hashem part of the author’s script, or are the characters solely dealing with their trouble using martial arts, sharpshooting, or other weapons of war? Is the protagonist a relatable character, or someone we would not want our child to emulate?
Which leads to the final point cited earlier: heroes. Are we providing our children with honest-to-goodness heroes? Are we inspiring them with real stories about real people who faced real challenges, who come from the same traditions and background as our children? Do we tell wholesome tales about our own childhoods and the great leaders and ancestors who came before us? Are we telling tales about ordinary people doing inspiring and remarkable things, thereby creating new heroes? Do we encourage our children and students to speak positively about impressive people in their lives, and encourage them to emulate them? Do we speak up and insist that the print media in our community provides relatable stories that tiptoe into fantasy without conflicting with our values? And that this reading material is anchored in realism, stability, mental health, and positive spiritual values? Our children desperately want and need healthy heroes. Let’s look for healthy heroes all around us. Let’s believe we can become like them too.
Bottom line: Parents and teachers—you can also be heroes for your children and students.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS.