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Myths to live by...or maybe not

"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is." (from The Power of Myth)

When Bill Moyers released his mind-blowing television series, The Power of Myth, I discovered Joseph Campbell and his amazing theories about myth.

Rites, symbols, rituals and myths are essential tools of mankind to explain life and its events, but more so, to cope with life and its events.

As a child, I had always been fascinated by mythology and fairy tales---the real ones, in hardbound, antique books with beautifully scary illustrations. The concise and consistent structure of each tale was reassuring and enlightening. The rules of both the genre and the repercussions and rewards for characters were solid. In fact, the monomyth remains one of the truest and most compelling forms of storytelling .

Just look at at the success of Star Wars.

Just read any popular, enduring children's book, such as Chronicles of Narnia.

Childhood is full of myths. Children are the best myth-makers I know. They are
also the best myth-recipients I know. I believe this is because they are truly in the position of needing to not only make sense of the world but also feel a sense of power and control, all from the vantage of not quite being able to grasp or understand it all yet. Thus, they rely on myths.

My friend Christina was convinced that if you wished hard enough on the star, it would really come true.

Kim was sure that if she stepped on a crack she'd curse her mother with a broken back.

I lost track of the number of grown-ups who swore thunder was just either (a) Rip Van Winkle bowling or (b) clouds bumping into one another.

As a child, I remember feeling irritated when I'd ask, "What makes thunder?" and get a response I knew was illogical, nonsensical or just plain not accurate such as long-dead Dutch settlers rolling balls at candlepins.

I swore I'd never "lie" to my own children when I grew up. And yet, as an adult, I understand the necessity of protecting children from information and putting things in terms they can grasp. I also understand the fun in believing in myths and symbols, such as the Easter Bunny. Moreover, I continue to believe in certain myths and symbols, and participate in certain rites and rituals. I have always been a sort of scientist---as are my kids---but I also believe in a meaning beyond science many times, or keep an open mind about it at least. Sometimes this leaves me in a personal quandry: how do I reconcile the science with the myth in my own mind, especially if both require a degree of faith?

And then there are my children. I have to find a way to answer their questions, all while juggling beliefs, facts, theories and information (as well as occasional ignorance).

Generally, my kids want a real, scientific, detailed explanation---preferably with a complete bibliography and illustrations. Generally, I give it to them, often in book and media form.

Still, other times, it's an unanswerable question and I find myself resorting to myths:

"Mom, how was the world made?"

"Mom, what happens when you die?"

"Mom, where do you find talking dogs for these TV shows?"

And yet other times...Patience observes and comes to her own conclusions, which she shares:

"The sun is hot like a rocket fire and it makes all the planets spin on strings around it. Like they are running from the heat, but really the heat is moving them. And sometimes a planet gets in front of us and that's why we have night."

She has others, even more interesting ones. For example, there is her absolutely riveting schematic explanation of death and reincarnation. (You can bet she didn't learn that in Catholic school. In fact, I have no idea where it came from.)

Now that Patience is school-aged, she is growing more skeptical of myths, and is more curious than ever.

I face a dilemma: where is the line between productive and okay and unproductive and harmful?

I often wonder when to let the incorrect things go on (such as when Patience generates the explanation---to which she holds fast to the point of really arguing with me about it) and when to open up (with additional information) the myths I've perpetuated, such as God created the world and Santa brings gifts.

At what point do I incorporate fact and share the various theories?

It struck me last night. We've been watching that awesome Planet Earth show, really enjoying it and all the information it teaches. Each night when we put Patience to bed, we have a goodnight tradition to say what we will dream about. So I said I'd dream about the animals in the mountains like in the show. Then I mixed animals from two regions. After I'd done so it struck me, was this an oops, should I have reinforced the facts we just learned and kept the red panda in China and the snow leopard in Pakistan? Or was it no big deal to go magical realism for a dream? I decided to not worry, not on this, but it did open up a broader question in my mind. (Upon checking my facts, it turns out that China hosts both red pandas and snow I wasn't too wrong.)

There is no straightforward answer; it's a fly by the seat of my pants, case-by-case basis situation. It doesn't just vary by child, it varies by moment too.

Sometimes a child asks about thunder because he is scared. Other times, it is a genuine curiosity and she wants to know how this phenomenon works. It's essential to get to the heart of the question. As with anything, I often begin with, "Hmm, why do you ask?"

I have a friend who will make up any old thing simply to answer the question. I'm not afraid to have the conversation, and I'm willing to admit I'm fallible and don't know everything. We frequently go look things up. I encourage the children to find the answer themselves.

Today Patience figured out, on her own, how to assemble her rocket launcher. I sat down, and quite honestly, said, "I don't know honey, I'm not sure where all the pieces go, we can ask Dad when he gets home or you can try to figure it out." She chose the latter.

"I didn't know," she told me when I praised her, and asked if she felt proud of herself, "That kids could figure out how to do things Moms don't know how to do!"

I simply said sure, and smiled, but a million things ran through my mind. It's so easy for me to see all the things she can do, will do, that I never could. It's so happily heartbreakingly gratifying to see her trust in herself enough to try to do something she wants to do, without me.

It's not lost on me that some of the Myth of Mom was lost today. But I also think we laid a stone on the path to the mother-daughter friends I hope we'll be when she's an adult.

The myths are breaking down. She's forming her own, and releasing others. She's questioning ones I've told her, and investigating ones she hears from friends. She's also accepting outside myths. And, she's learning to balance which source to believe when myths and information overlap and conflict.

It's a vital step. I think Joseph and Bill would be proud. I am.

What were the myths you lived by as a child? What myths did you enjoy, did you fear? Was it hard to let loose of any myths?

How do you manage myths with your own children?

P.S. If you'd like to participate in the Hump Day Hmm, I hope you will. If you do, send me your link and I'll add you to the host post. This week's topic is:

What has the experience of being forgiven been like for you?

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


thailandchani said…
Also an admirer of Joseph Campbell. As he says, most myths are just an explanation of transcendence. Over the past four years, I've learned a whole new set of myths, those ancient explanations of nature. I don't buy into any of them wholesale but do find them to be useful reminders of larger concepts.

As for kids, if I had them, what I'd want to look at before giving them to my children is the message behind them.

I wouldn't want my kids to be superstitious but also wouldn't want to stop them from being able to conceptualize abstract ideas by wrapping them in myth.

Ultimately, as long as they understand the purpose of myth, I'd probably encourage them to explore all sorts of myths from many different cultures.

From there, it would be "roll your own".



Aliki2006 said…
I grew up with too many superstitions, to the point of sometimes feeling crippled by them. We do talk a lot about myths at our house--my son has been struggling with myths about the nature of the world, the creation of earth, life and death and I think it's helped him to think of understanding these things in terms of myths--or at least, myths have given him a way to grapple with these issues and not feel too overwhelmed.

Great post.
Lawyer Mama said…
After the Santa myth was busted, so was pretty much everything else including God and religion.

I was just blown away by your daughter's explanation of life and death. That was pretty sophisticated for a 4 year old. It sounds like she's figuring out a lot of things for herself. And whether she realizes it or not, Mommy & Daddy gave her the foundation to do that. The Myth of Mom is alive and well!

That's also a wonderful picture of your daughter up at the top! She looks so young & so old at the same time.
Bones said…
One person's myth is another person's religion. We crave mystical constructs, be they myths or religion. There are very few "non-religious" people out there. Many may scoff at the five major organized religions but they read to horoscopes or go see palmists.

Pure atheists, it seems, are pretty hard to come by.

I believe very strongly that we were designed to seek the spiritual. Kids wrap themselves around myths like Santa Claus, and adolescents (and plenty of grown ups) devour Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Chronicles of Narnia like its candy. I’m actually re-reading the Narnia series right now.

And they probably aren't unhealthy. Myths may teach kids the skill of willing suspension of disbelief. I suppose the danger comes when suspending disbelief is not a rational choice but a knee-jerk reaction.
S said…
Absolutely beautiful picture of your daughter. Beautiful.

I struggle with this issue all the time. Particularly because Jack holds tight to his explanations for phenomena, even if those explanations are patently incorrect.

I let so much go, because I'm waiting until he's a little more receptive to hearing an analysis different from his own, a little less stubborn and threatened by being wrong.

I think the myth of mommy being omniscient and omnipotent should be broken down, but you're right, there is a time for it. Too soon, and I think a kid could get frightened by mom not being (fill in the blank -- perfect, strong, fearless...).
Christine said…
This post really made me think today. Children are not only surrounded my the myths we create/hand to them, but also by the myths they create for themselves. My daughter, too, is already creating stories and myths to comfort herself and to understand her ever widening world.

For example, she has convinced herself that if she rings this little bell that she has over her pillow at night she will not have bad dreams. How can i take that simple, sweet belief away? I guess I can't. At least not yet.
Catherine said…
Myths really are so powerful, and as grownups we don't even realize the role they play in our lives. I've been reading a lot recently about myths and rituals...we often seem to be on the same page, don't we?

I think another factor is that there are several ways to see any topic. Several people could look at a building and be asked "what are you looking at?" One could say "the financial headquarters of our city" while another said "the bastian of evil in the world" while another said "an amazing work of art" while another said "a monument to my great uncle" - and each could be right. Sometimes the scientific answer just isn't the "true" answer to the question being asked.
Magpie said…
Every day I get questions like: how do we make cars? how do we make bunnies? how do we make trains? how to we make eggs? how do we make ____? We haven't gotten to the hard questions yet...I so appreciate reading things like this to prep me for the future. I love that she figured out her rocket launcher, BTW.
Girlplustwo said…
joseph campbell rocks. and you got my brain all thinkity think about this now.

j very much appreciates mythology, the campbell sort and the psychological types. this post made me want to have you over for dinner.
Wow. Brilliant, brilliant post.

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