One of my greatest joys as a mother to a toddler has been translating the world to my son, one little story at a time. At his age, 2, concerns over sleep patterns and eating habits have taken a backseat to his emotional and cognitive development. His reasoning is budding but still rudimentary, which leaves me, his guide, a liberty I haven’t known since my own childhood — to interpret the environment.
My son is too young to integrate conditionals and exceptions, so the stories I tell him about the world are remarkably simple, internally consistent and full of wonder. This process of reinventing the banal allows me to punctuate my explanations with a “wow!” — a wow my son echoes with a sincerity I have outgrown. I consider myself a student of Joseph Campbell and so I do my best to guide my son through the questions the world offers him with some dimension of myth.
Like most mothers, my behavior passes through the filter of “what’s best for my child” before it actualizes. “What’s best” takes a universal form to some degree, but it is also imbued with a personal view of what I think is crucial for children: keeping their wings from being clipped.
In the constant weighing of which action or word to choose to make this journey worth his while, I feel a strong instinct to preserve my son’s natural joy and wonder, gifts that are vulnerable to this world’s harshness. Mythology is an oft-referred to tool in this process. It allows me to encapsulate elements of life and squeeze them into a comprehensible and palatable form. In myth, concerns over what’s magical and what’s not disappear. Through myth, my daily work with my son becomes easy, enjoyable and rewarding: I myself get a ticket out of boredom and challenge, to wonder and inspiration and thus this process feeds me as much as it feeds him.
A quandary remains however — the myths at our disposal focus on the natural world. The natural world is important and it is wonderful for instance to tell an abridged version of Icarus’ story while pushing my son on the swings. The problem is that my natural world includes much more than leaves turning and seasons changing.
My natural world includes stops at the ATM, screeching subway trains and cell phones, a multitude of sounds and sights that are decidedly technological, man-made but not un-natural. Un-natural implies they are not meant to be there but are, a confusion I don’t want to burden my son with. Let us call my world the new-natural. Alone in the new-natural, I find I am at a loss for words, telling my son, “That’s just the way it is,” more often than I am comfortable with.
In alternative circles, we shy away from many elements of the status quo, the mainstream, but, in snake-eating-its-tail manner, alternative lifestyles tend to maintain their own status quo. Natural good, technological, eh…suspicious. Consider an application to a Steiner school, a movement I sincerely support.
A question is posed to parents asks about televisions and laptops in the home. I understand the Steiner school’s concern over these devices but what happens when most of a parent’s reading is done on a computer instead of a paper book? What myth should I tell my son (or the Steiner school) to explain the magic laptops deliver and more importantly, why they sometimes fail? I entertain formulating a story involving electron-gnomes, but, unlike other myths, my electron-gnomes would not be tested and corrected over generations.
Respecting our environment has to include a recognition of its whole. Implying that all things technological are a necessary evil can cause a conflict in the psychological life of a child. There’s a need for modern fairy tales as they could ease our children into understanding the conflicts they and their parents face everyday.
How easy it would be to mythologize such wondrous processes as gravity and magnetism, yet we have not. Do we consider them sinister? Why have they not been allotted the same place in our mythological language as , say, sea monsters have?
Myths have traditionally been told to explain the environment. The reference points raised and connected by mythology are timeless Jungian archetypes. Therein lies a solution to the dearth of modern myths. We can always refer to these fixtures of man’s inner world to create a story, irrespective of what its hero or shadow wears. I suspect most parents already create their own, delightful myths that don’t leave the family circle.
For instance, when we started toilet training our child, my husband told him that a (benign) Pee monster lived in the toilet and this monster needed to be fed pee else he’d go hungry. I told my husband how wonderful that story was, as it externalized a potentially scary process for our son, the need to expel something unpleasant from his body, into a life giving process, feeding a creature that lives outside of him. My explanation earned me an eye roll but the function of the story is the same whether we elucidate on its inner mechanisms or not.
Asking the rest of the world to send me an anthology of modern myths in order to teach my son how to navigate the new-natural is a tall order (though I would love to hear other parents’ home-based myths). What I do want to point out and ask readers to question is why are there so few modern myths? Perhaps we adults have yet to integrate our own conflicted feelings towards the modern world and its manifestations and thus can’t pass on the story to our children. If that is the case, we might have some work to do.