It’s OK To Read Sad Stories to Children

In fact, it can be really important.
December 19, 2018
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Is your setting full of sterilised bookshelves?

Trolls? Out. Monsters? Removed. Faces are smiling, and endings always happy?

Well, maybe it’s time to change that…

What do we mean by a sad story anyway?

By sad stories, we don’t just mean books with bleak, harrowing endings. The sterilisation of stories includes removing scary monsters, getting rid of a hero’s triumph (which might be a sad ending for the baddie), and the hero’s failures too.

“A sad ending touches on feeling of compassion and sorrow, and scary figures such as ogres and trolls give our heroes a worthy adversary,” says Heather Shumaker, whose book It’s OK to Go Up The Slide features a brilliant chapter on exactly this subject. “Most of the time, the hero should prevail,” she says, “but if the story demands it, sometimes the wily fox must win.”

But before we can understand fully why sad stories matter, we need to first understand what makes stories so important in the first place.

Stories have a purpose…

Stories play a crucial role in a child’s development. They raise confidence levels, improve language, and help them to understand and deal with complex emotions.

Stories played an important role in our evolutionary history, and the way in which we use stories and learn from them may even be the secret sauce that helped us on our way to evolutionary dominance. When we share stories we connect to each other, to ourselves, and to the world around us.

In other words, our brains are hard-wired for good storytelling.

But if we want children to hear stories, and later to read them, we need to give them stories worth listening to. They need to be age-relevant, but they must be exciting, full of suspense, feature interesting characters, and make children desperate to turn the page. But where do sad stories come in?

…and sad stories fulfil that purpose too

Good storytelling is what is fitting for the story. Sometimes what is fitting is a reconciliation, a happy ending. Sometimes it’s failure. Sometimes it’s a hero defeating the bad guy. Sometimes it’s the bad guy winning out.

If we always read stories that choose the safe route, then we’re going to be sharing a whole lot of bland, unexciting stories with our children.

Thinkers like Piaget and Kohlberg agree that at this stage of a child’s moral development, things are fairly black and white. They’re inherently concerned with justice, and so they know it’s not fair that the Big Bad Wolf makes friends with the Three Little Pigs, when all he’s done is torment them.

If you only give them stories that feature sterilised, unrealistic endings, then you’re not giving them the opportunity to properly explore this deeply held interest in justice and fairness.

More lessons from sad stories

Stories are one of the most powerful tools that we can use to provoke children’s development, and to teach them important lessons. By removing sad stories from the playing field, we miss out on a bunch of important lessons, like:

  • Empathy for people less fortunate than us
  • An exploration of justice (and injustice)
  • A realistic understanding of the world around us
  • A chance to make some children see that they’re not alone in their struggles
  • That people in difficult situations can still prevail

For children who do live in a relatively happy, comfortable world, you have a great opportunity to teach them empathy, and give them a full understanding of people with lives not like theirs. For those children who do face difficulty at home, sad or difficult stories teach them that they’re not alone.

A more diverse range of stories can lead children to feel less isolated – and inspired too. Stories like Dr Seuss’ I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew where the central character finds himself taken from his easy life after a series of misfortunes. It teaches children that a troubling world isn’t something to escape from, but to attack head-on:

“But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”

- Dr Seuss, I Had trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

The big ideas

A story is a safe place (because you’re there)

Stories and storytelling are the perfect environment for more difficult subjects precisely because they’re a safe place. The child isn’t directly experiencing the hardship – they’re seeing it in a context that you control.

You can discuss ideas, make changes, hide the scariest pictures, or make scary voices louder, quieter, or more joyful as you read the story.

“Children picture what they can handle,” explains Susan Roscigno, a co-director at the School for Young Children (quoted in Shumaker’s book), “They picture a scary spider, but not one as big as the movie shows.” This is why stories or books are a safe place, because the children, and you as the teller, are in control. This isn’t always the case when the story is more visual.

A story is just the start

The thing about sad stories is that they stick with us, and we seek to understand them. So long as they’ve been handled sensitively by the adult, the journey really begins after you’ve read the final line.

They are a great beginning for play and exploration. Trying to solve these injustices can be a great problem-solving activity for young minds. Presenting them with a sad or unjust ending allows them to compassionately see a problem and imagine a world where there could be a happier ending. At the right stage of development, that can be a lot more powerful than simply handing a happy ending to them.

The debate is actually summed up rather nicely in one simple point. As humans, we are not happy all the time.

As they grow, children experience a wide range of emotions. In preparing them for what comes next, you need to give them the tools to deal with the full range of what they’re going to face. Books and stories are one of the best ways we can give them these tools.

By giving them only happy stories, we’re giving our children a full set of screwdrivers. But sometimes, they’re going to need a drill, a hammer, a saw.

How to read more diverse stories

If you’re ready to start reading a wider range of stories with a wider range of emotions, here are some things to bear in mind.

1. Know your crowd

The one thing that good early years practice always comes back to is understanding your children.

This includes things like their background, to make sure that you don’t read a story that could bring up some painful trauma for them. It also might mean working with the right people to choose stories that could help with that trauma in the long term.

The other truth is that some children are not ready for more uncomfortable stories. If you know that some of your children are highly sensitive or prone to nightmares, then don’t read them the story. There are other things that might be more important for that child right now.

2. Experiment with care

Experimenting with different tales is important. But it’s important that you experiment with care, and in close cooperation with your children (that’s where knowing your crowd comes in).

Heather Shumaker suggests trying out different versions of the same story. Try out the version of The Three Little Pigs where the pigs and wolf become best mates, the one where the wolf falls in the fire and dies, and the one where he falls in the pot and burns his tail.

Ask which one your children like best – they might find a story with a more triumphant ending far more satisfying and engaging.

3. A story is an experience

As we’ve already talked about, the act of telling a story is an experience – and one that you as the storyteller have the central role in.

Think about how you use your voice, how you create suspense, or alleviate tension. Ask questions and check that everyone is OK. Most of all, pay attention to the children, and look for signs of interest (or disinterest) as much as you look for signs of upset, or concern. That is how you will know when to ratchet it up or cool it down.

4. Keep a balance

No child is going to benefit from an endless stream of miserable books.

Of course, you still need to keep it diverse and interesting to children. Experiment with books from different cultures, with different moods and different endings. Choosing books from different places can also give you a new perspective on how different societies approach the whole idea of a ‘happy ending’ in a different way.

The only golden rule? It should be an interesting story. If the children don’t like it, then it’s time to put it away, no matter how important the message. Just like adults, children learn through what they love. Finding a good story is no exception.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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