Understanding Good and Evil in Children's Literature

January 24, 2008

by Renée Fuller

"But surely you know that good and evil are a matter of opinion!" The voice on the phone belonged to a senior editor of a large publishing house. It was an authoritative voice, very sure of itself, yet trying to be reassuring as it continued.

"Please understand. I personally find your books thoroughly enjoyable and much more interesting than the standard pap we're all producing. But that's not the point. No large publisher can bring out a reading series with stories about good guys and bad guys. Of course they are very entertaining. But they give the children the wrong picture of life...."

"Did I hear right?" My astonishment was escalating. "You said that there is no such thing as good and evil? . . . . Of course there is!"
The voice of the senior editor broke in. "Now Dr. Fuller, you know perfectly well that what's labeled good or evil depends on who writes the history. It's all relative . . . "
"You've gotta be kidding! If someone kills you when you leave the office tonight, that's evil. To say it's all a matter of opinion -- you'll scare the kids to death with that viewpoint, and me too! Besides, no society can survive without an understanding of good and evil."

Although we continued talking for a long time, we never did resolve our disagreement. This conversation more than ten years ago, was my first introduction into a policy that is still being implemented by major publishers. It explains much of what is printed in today's textbooks.
As a child psychologist. I am concerned about the all-pervasive fear such a relativistic viewpoint of good and evil creates. It makes children with their linear logic wonder, "What's to prevent someone from hurting me or my Mom and Dad if even nice people do such things? And, if hurting can be justified, then it's all the more likely to happen." These childish fears and logic are reinforced by the terrifying reality of TV news with its daily scenes of violence and terrorism against innocent people.

To counteract this terrifying reality, adults must express their concern--their horror--at acts of evil. Indignation when others are harmed reassures children. The child gains security from knowing that there are standards that all of us are expected to live up to; that when someone does not live up to these standards, it means that he is a bad guy.

In the ten years since my conversation with the senior editor I have seen numerous children reassured and comforted by stories about good and bad guys -- with the good guys winning of course. Ironically, it was the conversation with the senior editor and similar ones with other large publishers that set into motion events which made me see first hand the importance of stories about good and evil.

Good and evil are concepts that represent the essential rules of behavior without which no society can survive.

My refusal to change the reading series to please the large publishers made it necessary to print the books on my own. Overnight, I became a small publisher. As a result, schools, learning centers, universities and parents talked to me directly about their children and the books. Through workshops and visits I saw how the stories, which the senior editor had objected to, were creating understandings that are essential to the mental health of developing minds. The children identified with the good guys and wanted to become more like them. Just like the students in our original research studies, these children also found comfort and security in their identification with the doers of good deeds.

The books which are from 100 to 150 pages long are of graded difficulty. Each book is a separate science fiction adventure. Although some of the characters appear in book after book, their level of sophistication rises as does the level of the good guys' battle with evil. In our research, the older students often described this battle as similar to their own. Unexpectedly, court-committed delinquents became especially involved with this aspect of the books. Reggie was the first such youngster to tell us that the stories made him feel good..

At age 14, Reggie had been institutionalized for armed burglary and arson. Because he was illiterate, we tried to break into his cycle of failure and violence by teaching him to read. At the time the books had just been written. We were unfamiliar with their effect, therefore had no expectation that the stories might be therapeutic. So when Reggie told us that Timo, the main character of The Voorhoo Who Did Not Understand He Was Born To Be Bad "is like me", we were puzzled. How could he be like Timo, who spends more than 100 pages of hilarious adventures with Vad the robot from Mars, and Mimithecomet, learning that helping means giving even when there's no reward? Surely they bore little resemblance to one another. Or did they?

We asked Reggie what he thought had happened to Timo, and why he liked him so much. The answer was so simple, yet so adult. "He become more of a man." This was a very different idea of manhood from the pimps and drug dealers Reggie had idolized in the past. The stories had helped Reggie develop an identity of his own just like Timo had in the story. Happy endings are possible even for the delinquents who are terrorizing and are terrorized by our city streets.
Amusing as it sounds, it is nevertheless realistic to say that discernment of right and wrong has a real mental health function.

But it is not just the disadvantaged for whom the stories about good and evil help in the development of an identity. Bobby, aged seven, the precocious provocateur of his private school, was about to be expelled. After consultation, his desperate mother raced him through the reading series so he would be an adult reader in a matter of months. In this way, Bobby would have access to the world of ideas to help his very active mind stay out of mischief Bobby and his Mom succeeded. But even before this achievement something else had happened. The school provocateur had become a pint-sized storyteller. Like the books of the reading series, Bobby's stories were about space characters. They were miniature tales about good guys and bad guys -- with the good guys winning of course. But most important, they were moral stories, reflecting the child's discovery of the concept of good and evil, and that this concept has meaning.

Bobby shared his discovery with his classmates -- a very different kind of sharing from the spitballs, slingshot paperclips and foul language of the past. There was no more talk of his being expelled. The child gains security from knowing that there are standards that all of us are expected to live up to; that when someone does not live up to these standards, it means that he is a bad guy. For all our experimental students, identification with the good guys, and the desire to be more like them produced strikingly positive personality changes. Jeffrey, who was retarded, and had also been in trouble with the law, described the effect. When you try to be good, that means one less bad guy. Sometimes you make other kids good. It's like you make things happen. Not like before, things was always happening to you.

With these realizations, Jeffrey had become more outgoing, more sunny. He was acting and saying that the world had become less scary -- a nicer place. He had understood that when you try to be a good guy, try to make this a better world, you have ceased to be helpless. You have gained at least some control over your surroundings. Being less helpless means that you can at least try to control the "baddies" in yourself. This is especially important because for all of us one of the most frightening things is when we find ourselves out of control -- when we see and hear with frightened astonishment the strange performance we ourselves are producing.

Children and the retarded can be very logical. They reason that if you can't control your own "baddies," then other people probably can't control theirs. Therefore, danger lurks everywhere. Getting control over your own "baddies" means, as Jeffrey described it, that the world can tee made into a safer place. And that "all the good guys get together so that no bad guys win. This was Jeffrey's way of expressing the hope he now had for mankind -- a hope and a yearning shared by many of us who also enjoy stories about good guys winning in their battle with evil!
Children the world over are frightened by evil, which is why they are fascinated by stories which overcome this fear. They feel personally involved when evil is vanquished -- when good triumphs. They have gained a type of control over a terror which seems to be lurking in the shadows, threatening them with what psychologists call "learned helplessness."

"Learned helplessness" happens when you feel powerless to protect yourself or your family from harm. But it is more. For "learned helplessness" produces damaging physical and emotional symptoms. In the laboratory, the animal that has repeatedly found that no matter what he does it makes no difference, stops struggling. He has given up. Even if the situation is changed, he doesn't realize it because he has stopped trying. He has learned to be helpless. The corresponding human becomes depressed and loses interest in life. The point of living has been taken away. "What's the use?" say the emotions, and the physiology begins to shut down.
It is appalling that we now see large numbers of depressed children. These are youngsters who believe that no matter what they do, it will make no difference. For them the good guys don't win, there are no good guys. Several mental hospitals have used an astonishingly successful therapeutic tool with some of these depressed children. It is the reading series the senior editor objected to more than ten years ago. A juvenile court system in Kansas has had similar results with young offenders who, like Reggie, thought that Timo had "become more of a man."
It is appalling that we now see large numbers of depressed children, who believe that no matter what they do, it will make no difference. For them the good guys don't win -- there are no good guys.

The preoccupation of children with stories about good and evil represents a healthy preoccupation. It is the child's way of gaining control of himself and his world. With such control, knowing that he is not helpless since he has controlled at least some of the "baddies" within himself, the world is less scary. Amusing as it sounds, it is nevertheless realistic to say that discernment right and wrong have a vital mental health function.

The similarity in what is considered good and evil in our various human cultures is not accidental. Good and evil are concepts that represent the essential rules of behavior without which no society can survive. Just as a child fears for its survival without a belief in right and wrong, so must a society. The feeling of danger shared by many of us that our society is disintegrating because of lack of standards is not unrealistic. The drug culture, and the violence in our schools are ample evidence that our fears are not unfounded.

But there is another reason for our children's preoccupation with stories about good and evil: another reason for their search to understand what represents right and what represents wrong. It is that they are trying to establish an identity. Cathy, one of our four-year-olds, was a beautiful representative of this.

For all our experimental students, identification with the good guys. and the desire to be more like them produced strikingly positive personality changes.

Shortly after Cathy began the series, Vad, the robot from Mars became her hero. She drew picture after picture of him. Of course, because she was only four years old, they were not very good pictures. Eagerly she ran up to visitors telling them with wide-eyed excitement about Vad's exploits, and how he rescued and helped those in need. A few months later, after she had reached the middle of the series, (about the 5th or 6th grade level) her fantasies expanded. Now she was the rescuer, the helper of those in need. Her self-concept was developing into an identity involved with good deeds. Although only four, she was aware that she was Cathy and knew what type of person she wanted to become.

In the years that have followed since my original conversation with the senior editor, I have seen first-hand the fascination children have for stories about good and evil. There are powerful reasons for this phenomenon which are rooted in child dewlopment. These stories, which appear in all cultures, all religions, play an essential role in the mental health of childhood. They also help create the person the child will become. Quite by accident, it was my own reading series that showed me the power of stories in creating adults who will help us make this a better world.

About the Author
After developing the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system with its unexpected successes in teaching four-year olds, adult dyslexic-illiterates and even the severely retarded to read in record time, Dr. Renee Fuller went on to develop the story-as-the-engram theory of cognitive organization, an alternative to intelligence (IQ) theory. Her theory, a consequence of the unexpected successes of her reading system, has since led to further approaches for enhancing our human ability.

Dr. Fuller went to Swarthmore and Hunter Colleges, was a Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with honors in psychology. She received her M.A. in experimental psychology from Columbia University, and her Ph.D. in 1963 in physiological psychology from New York University. From 1960 to 1966 she was Research Scientist at Letchworth Village, New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, responsible for the psychological and developmental evaluation of the New York State study of phenylketonuria. As project director at the Staten Island Society of Mental health from 1966 to 1967, Dr. Fuller directed the evaluation of premature infants. There, as Chief of Psychological Services, Rosewood Hospital Center, Maryland Department of Mental Hygiene from 1967 to 1973, she organized a psychology department involved in applied and basic research in the field of human development.

One of her experimental programs dealt with the cognitive changes following Ball-Stick-Bird intervention. For this work she received Fairleigh Dickinson University's Distinguished Achievement Award. The American Psychological Association has devoted a lengthy symposium and workshops to the results of the reading system and its implications for intelligence theory. An expanded version of ths symposium appeared in book form under the title In Search of the IQ Correlation.

The story-as-the-engram theory, contrary to standard intelligence theory, is anchored in the applied world of person to person communication. Dr. Fuller has shown how language development in children determines how we organize our cognitive world. She has further shown that this capacity can be greatly enhanced through educational intervention. Of considerable interest to our aging population is that by enhancing this capacity there is an increase rather than decrease in intellectual functioning with increasing age.

Dr. Fuller has published widely in the field of clinical physiological psychology. At present she is continuing her work in developing learning programs and is consultant to numerous school systems, universities, departments of education, and other organizations.
You can reach Dr. Fuller at:Ball-Stick-Bird PublicationsPO Box 429, Williamstown, MA 01267
telephone: (413) 664-0002e-mail:

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