It is the nature of children (and grown-ups) to tell stories. That’s a given. Stories act a social lubricant among kids, a currency of exchange, and as a way to share information about their lives and their relationship to the world – or information about how the world works. I know from personal experience that telling a story with an air of incontrovertible authority (my specialty almost since I gained the power of speech) or telling a story with emotional intensity can be very persuasive to the listener. Many listeners can be convinced of the truth of a story without ever pausing to ask questions, but if we don’t teach our kids to greet information with appropriate skepticism, we run the risk that they will grow up to follow rascals, demagogues and ignoramuses. Intellectual courage allows us to question information, and social courage gives us the courage to resist using sensational information as a social currency or passport to attention.
I offer the cautionary tale of Chicken Little:
One day, Chicken Little was walking in the woods, when an acorn fell on her head, startling her out of her wits. “The sky is falling,” she shrieked, “I must tell the king!” And off she ran down the road.
Almost at once she met up with Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” Chicken Little panted. “I’m off to tell the king!”
“Oh no!” gasped Henny Penny. “Oh dear!” And she started running along to spread the terrible news, too.
“The sky is falling!” they both screeched when they ran into Turkey Lurkey and Cocky Locky and Ducky Lucky. “We’re going to warn the king!”
Now all five birds were hightailing it down the road, sobbing and wailing about the end of the world, when whom should they meet but Foxy Loxy?
“What’s the problem, my friends?” asked Foxy Loxy with a look of great concern on his foxy red face.
“You look positively terrified.”
Chicken Little paused to catch her breath. “We must find the king as soon as possible, because the sky is falling!”
Cunning Foxy Loxy nodded gravely. “How good and brave of you to warn him. Follow me, I know a short cut.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” they all exclaimed, and Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky and Cocky Locky followed that fox right to his den, where his children were waiting for their dinner.
There is also a very old version of this story from India. This tale features a hare who is startled by a coconut thumping to the ground, and believes that the world is ending. He dashes off, warning every animal he sees about the imminent destruction of the earth until there is a positive stampede of terrified creatures. At last they meet the lion, who decides to get to the root of the story, and is able to calm everybody down when he shows the hare that it was only a coconut after all.
These days, we are beset by Chicken Littles and scared hares on all sides. It’s true that there is much to be alarmed by in the world today, but there is also a lot of hysterical fear-mongering. When I am told something scary I try to resist the temptation to panic. “Really?” I ask. “Really?” I’ll try to find out if it’s true and then panic! No, seriously, I’m not big on panic and I don’t believe everything I hear. This is definitely something I’m trying to model for my daughter. Our children need the intellectual courage to ask questions and have a healthy skepticism, to resist the momentum of the mob and find out to the best of their ability if the sky is really falling. Learning to consider the source of a story can truly be a life-saver.
Beyond that, there is also the damage to consider when accepting and repeating stories about other people. This is terrifyingly true among teenagers and with today’s gossip-enabling technology. A rumor can burn through an entire community as fast as brushfire, with tragic consequences. Questions such as “Were you there?” “Did you see that yourself?” “How do you know that’s true?” “Why are you sharing this story with me?” are questions children need to learn to use from a young age, so that they can be effective fire-breaks when rumors blaze past them in middle and high school. We parents can learn to use these questions ourselves, and let our kids see us look up to check if the sky is still where it belongs.