Teaching Children About Cultural & Social Structures Through Literature

This week we talked about illustration and themes in The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. As a young adult, going back and rereading something I haven’t seen since I was child was an exciting and eye-opening experience. As a child I think I missed a lot of themes when my parents would read to me because I would just be completely fixated on the images, rather than following the content of the storyline, (or I would fall asleep before we reach the moralistic ending). In reexamining Potter’s work, I think the theme of following social norms and being obedient are interesting topic to teach children. It makes sense that parents would want to read books to their children that will help mold them into well-behaved human beings, but I think that Peter Rabbit also does a great job of also introducing the excitement of going against the norms. The most enticing illustrations are those in which Peter is caught in the act of doing something he is not supposed to be doing. For example, the key image of Peter eating the carrots in the garden. While Peter’s disobedience lands him in the scary situation of encountering Mr. McGregor and needing to run away in the hopes of escaping death, he ultimately survived. Even though he did not get to eat the bread, milk, and berries for supper like the other three good rabbits, Peter still ended up safe and sound back at home. I am not arguing against the idea that the theme of Peter Rabbit is about “listening to you mother” and being obedient, but rather noticing that it is possible for everything to work out if you do not follow the rules. After all, Peter did not end up being baked into a pie like his father. It is more likely that children will catch onto the theme of needing to follow the rules or else they will get in trouble (or not enjoy the same benefits as those who are rule-followers); I just find it fascinating that if Potter wanted to send a clear-cut message of “follow the rules or else,” than she probably would have made Peter die or get caught by Mr. McGregor. Incorporating the scary consequences into the protagonists actions would present a more powerful fear of breaking norms.

This narrative that eases children into cultural and social structures of conformity is common in children’s literature. Another coming of age story this reminded me of was that of Hans Christian Anderson’s work, The Ugly Duckling.  The contrasting views between the Ugly Ducking and Peter Rabbit being the odd man out can either be viewed as a beneficial life experience that compliments individuality or a dangerous taboo that should be discouraged. This goes back to the question posed in class: What makes children’s literature? But more specifically, what lessons should be taught in children’s literature? And who gets to decide? I think a mixture of books that encourage nonconformist and conformist behavior would probably be the best way to help introduce children to social elements of this complex life. Seeing which ones they favor would be quite compelling.

One Reply to “Teaching Children About Cultural & Social Structures Through Literature”

  1. This is a great question.  I loved the Tales of Peter Rabbit as a kid, but had no clue they were preaching such formal social norms.  It’s a tough question because I’d rather have kids reading Potter than playing on an iPad but at what cost?  Can books be harmlessly normative?  I think your suggestion is great, that a mix is best.

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