Why do we encourage children to be gullible?

Tom Bell, in the Agoraphilia blog, asks an interesting question. Why does children's fiction promote credulity as a virtue?

Children's fiction employs this trope so often that it fits a formula. A wise character tries to convince the protagonist that something wonderful will happen if only he or she will earnestly believe an improbability. Consider, for instance, how Yoda tells Luke to cast aside all doubt if he wants to levitate his x-wing from the swamps of Dagobah. "Do, or do not. There is no try," Yoda explains. Following the usual script, Luke resists, courting disaster, before he finally embraces faith and wins its rewards.

Bell notes an obvious explanation -- that religious and political leaders would like to see young people raised to believe without question. But Bell then suggests an alternative explanation. Maybe it's because children's literature depends upon the suspension of disbelief, and therefore children's authors need to promote gullibility as a virtue.

Looking at the question historically (which, after seven years of grad school is how I tend to approach questions like this), I would say it might have something to do with the sentimentalization of childhood which, in western culture, began to occur during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, this just raises the question of why our culture began to sentimentalize childhood. I honestly don't know, but it sure has helped Disney make a lot of money.

Literature/Language Psychology

Posted on Wed Feb 20, 2008


I think this cuts both ways. Not that the Simpsons are typical kid-lit but in Side-Show Bob's first evil appearance, Bart saved the day because he was the little boy who never stopped believing (gullibility as a virtue). In the next, he put Bob away because he was the boy who never started trusting. It's gone back and forth but usually distrust and skeptism are more valued.

In SF alien invasion books/movies, often the one individual who doesn't believe turns out to be right (X-Files, V, Body Snatchers). A bad movie but it featured a kid and was aimed at younger audientces--in The Stuff, the protagonist survives by completely distrusting family and society.

As you mentioned stories about magic and science fiction need an extra helping of belief but there is an omnipresent hero of disbelief reaching children everywhere-- "I'd have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for you meddling kids and that dog!"
Posted by Mark  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  04:48 PM
What an interesting topic... but I think even the same storyline could be viewed in opposite ways.

Take the Narnia series - in one sense, only the children could enter Narnia because only they have the wide-eyed innocence and imagination to do so, then as they grow up and get involved in real life, they lose that ability to believe in imaginary worlds. But on the other hand, you could argue that only the children can actually see the *truth* because their eyes have not been clouded by the deceptions that come along with being an adult.

Many books that are popular with kids, such as The Series of Unfortunate Events books, have the kids seeing the truth about things and people, while the adults around them don't see the truth at all and are fooled by every deception. Part of the popularity of these books is the sense of independence that it gives the reader - not having to rely on adults to do things for you - and also perhaps a sense of superiority.

Parents are definately in on the game too - look at how many parents try to convince their young ones of the existence of Santa Claus. I know a number of otherwise reasonable mothers who were crushed when their children realized that Santa was imaginary. And I know quite a few kids that were equally crushed when they found out their mothers had been lying to them all that time. It's a part of my culture that really baffles me. What's the point of putting the kids or the parents through that? I never believed that Santa was real, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the holidays!
Posted by Terran  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  07:05 PM
Another way to consider the issue. Children's stories are going along with the way children see the world. To a child many things must be simply magic because the child does not yet have the understanding of the limits of the real world.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  07:33 PM
Terry Pratchett wrote an entire novel about the promotion of credulity in children called "Hogfather". To over simplify the Grim Reaper taking over the job of Santa Claus on Christmas. Believe me it's even funnier than you could imagine.

In the book Death (who speaks in small caps) is talking to his very tired, adopted grand-daughter Susan...


"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers [i.e. Santa Claus]? Little
Posted by Part 1  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  09:13 PM
think of it this way: its hilarious. i lie to children all the time ( i have very young cousins 2-6 years old). and its always funnier when they call me on my bs then actually believe it. happy side effect of this: the kids have become much more credulous. they wont believe anything they hear anymore. even when another person corroborates. they now require outside proof. i've made a bunch of skeptics and its been fun. maybe kid's lit serves the same purpose.
Posted by Ryan  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  09:13 PM
Belief is a human instinct. In every culture you find belief in gods, magic, other worldly realms (like after life), miracles, monsters and things that you have to take on faith. Even atheist accept some things on belief when, even though something might be very probable, it cannot be proven beyond all doubt. Humans need to trust each other to maintain a society.

I'm not entirely sure why humans evolved with these traits. My theory is if you lived your life not believing in an after life were your existence would continue, that the good would be rewarded and the evil would be punished and that there was some intelligent being(s) were controlling the universe you would fall into despair. You would have to live with the fear that at death you would no longer exist. If you didn't believe in supernatural rewards and punishments your motivation to do good would be reduced and all the evil things people did would go unpunished. If you didn't believe in God(s) that you could control through worship into keeping the world a friendly place then you would be living in a universe that was totally out of your control. Finally if we lived in a society where no one trusted and believe anything they were told how could we function as a group?

The term "con-man" is a shortened version of "confidence man" because as long as someone has your confidence you'll believe what they tell you. It's only when our trust in others is abused and we are unwilling to question and/or change our beliefs do we get into trouble.
Posted by Part 2  on  Wed Feb 20, 2008  at  09:15 PM
You might want to read Vladimir Propp and Joseph Campbell's work...Propp analyzed Russian folk tales in the early 20th C. Joseph Campbell was an American academic who specialized in mythology.
Posted by MagicFaireDust  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  12:17 AM
The phenomenon exists - though it's complex and not the either/or that Bell's false dilemma suggests - but the Yoda example is totally off the ball: that is about having faith in yourself and your abilities, which is a pretty useful lesson (of course, learning to doubt your own abilities is also a valuable lesson!).
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  03:22 AM
But - children's books about fairies and witches and trolls are fun - isn't that the point? To let your imagination and creativity run wild before it's trammelled by a conventional world that tells you nothing fantastic or wonderful or special ever happens (Ihate that 'but sunsets are miracles' crap. They're not. They're science. Pretty, but proveable science).

I don't think children are gullible. They just see the world in a different way.
Posted by Nona  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  05:30 AM
Nona, I don't think the point is 'why are children's book full of magic', it's 'why do many[a significant minority of] children's stories have plotlines that explicitly reward naivete and explicitly punish maturity or scepticism'? There are certainly plenty of books and stories that do...
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  05:37 AM
Incidentally, another reason that the Yoda example is crap is that in the Star Wars world the Force does exist - and Luke has seen that in person and knows that the Force in general and the Jedi specifically have shaped history. So it is certainly not credulity that Yoda encourages: even the most hardened sceptic would, in Luke's shoes, give credence to the Force...
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  05:42 AM
I agree that, while a lot of juvenile fiction does emphasize the benefits of believing in magic, there are also a lot of stories that celebrate young characters for their critical thinking and their ability to see through cant and obfuscation. The fable of "The Emperor's New Clothes" comes to mind.

Probably, it mostly depends on which plot device the writers need to deploy in order to advance the narrative.

In any case, most entertainment narratives, for adults as well as children and adolescents, cater to people's need to escape at least temporarily from the grinding realities of quotidian life. In real life, Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone don't take on whole armies single-handedly and win (we'll leave Chuck Norris out of this for the moment). In real life, if your vehicle gets stuck in the swamp, you aren't getting it out unless a heavy-duty tow truck comes along at the right moment. But who would buy a ticket to see that?
Posted by Big Gary  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  09:46 AM
Wow, everyone has a lot to say on this.

I'll just add that once I found a website with full page scans from printings of the story of Little Red Riding Hood spanning a couple hundred years. The earlier ones ended with Little Red Riding hood being eaten. It was a cautionary tale intended to warn women entering puberty (hence the red cloak) to be careful who they placed their trust in.

But as you chronologically went through the editions, that ending was softened more and more until the original message was lost. It had been "replaced" by the message that if you are cute and pretty enough, some well-intentioned man will save you from any ill-intentioned men.

However, the new message was an accident that developed through years of different authors trying to make the ending happier. So no one intended to replace the message of mis-trust and wariness with one of blind faith that someone will save you, it just happened accidentally.

I've heard that many other familiar children's stories have undergone similar accidental changes just to give them happy endings.

Sorry, I can't find that website with the scans of the old books.
Posted by Crazy Ivan  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  10:17 AM
Am I the weird one here who grew up not liking fancy, supernatural or unnatural themed movies, stories etc ... My head keeps telling me BS..BS..

As a grown up I got into trouble with my wife because I told my 3year old son that Elmo is just a toy. She tells him he is a friendly monster.

Naturally I believe children are born rational thinking beings .. we clamour their thinking with bunch of BS as they grow up.
Posted by AAB  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  10:29 AM
Crazy Ivan - sometimes the changes are more purposeful than accidental for commercial reasons. When I was a child I saw an adaptation of The Little Mermaid on TV and the ending made me bawl my eyes out. I don't necessarily approve of happy endings, but when I saw the sanitized Disney version of the same story, I was absolutely horrified that they'd sucked the soul out of it in order to make money. I think unhappy elements can serve a lot of different purposes - they can help teach lessons, as in the old folk stories, and they can also help children to learn to deal with grief and loss in a small way before they ever have to deal with it in real life. Think of Bambi losing his mother, the pain of growing up in The Fox and the Hound, and Charlotte's death in Charlotte's Web, not to mention Old Yeller. Today, movie companies are scared of touching on any real emotional topic because parents don't want to take their kids to movies that will make them cry, but a lot of the best childrens movies ever made involve some sort of grief.
Posted by Terran  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  10:44 AM
AAB - I think there is a huge difference in propogating lies and encouraging imagination. I tend to think that children can tell the difference between the two - that they hate being lied to, but they love being told stories. At least, that's how I was as a kid, and still am today. There was actually an article on NPR this morning (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514) that talked about the importance of imagination to brain and social development, and how some of today's toys and games and preschool activities are actually stunting that development.
Posted by Terran  on  Thu Feb 21, 2008  at  10:48 AM
But outeast, many children's stories do reward scepticism and the ability to see through the crap. The whole of the Golden Compass, for example, or the aforementioned Emperor's New Clotes. In Harry Potter, it's the adults who are gullible enough to believe the ministry and the kids who believe Harry. The Baudelaire children are not naive, and are sceptical, as is Arthur in the Keys to the Kingdom series - and Artemis Fowl is himself very sceptical. And there are plenty of stories for adults giving out the same old 'build it and they will come' type crap. I don't think it's a case of all children's book rewarding naiviety - some do, and some don't, and some adult books do exactly the same. In fact, I find children's books, when it comes to a fair view of the way people behave, tend to be more honest then the piles of books for adults whining on about they got through a difficult childhood with the help of whatever particular deity they believe in, or wittering on about finding true love. I think Lyra is far more cynical and clear-sighted than Bridget Jones.
Posted by Nona  on  Fri Feb 22, 2008  at  05:41 AM
I see your point, Nona, but I don't think your examples are representative: the (in my opinion pretty ghastly) Golden Compass series, to take your most prominent example, is a definite outlier as it is explicity written to defy the archetypes of children's fiction. (The Narnia books are similarly an outlier, despice my own citation thereof in this discussion, because they were explicitly written as Christian propaganda; both the Golden Compass and Narnia series are similarly sanctimonious, despite their diametrically opposed departure points.)

The message of the Emperor's New Clothes is not really about scepticism: it is that the obvious, apparent truth is more to be relied on than the claims of those who maintain that they have special knowledge.

That said, I'm racking my brains and can't think of all that many kid's books that really stress the virtues of credibility; most 'magic' stories are set in a fantasy reality where magic actually does exist, rather than in a woreld that is recognizably the one in which kids are. I can think of some, but I can easily dismiss those as outliers too...
Posted by outeast  on  Fri Feb 22, 2008  at  06:28 AM
outeast - just out of curiosity, since you are dismissing the bulk of the extremely popular titles and series that have been discussed so far as "outliers," what popular titles aimed at that age group do you consider mainstream? I'm not up on all the current childrens' series, but most of the ones I can think of encourage independent thought and truth-seeking to some extent.

Chris Crutcher is the only author I can think of off the top of my head that writes really high-quality books set in a real world with events that could really happen (The Chocolate War, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes are both excellent), but his books are aimed at a teen audience, and they tend to deal with much darker issues. But the young protagonists are still often the ones that know the truth of the situation, while the adults around them are in denial or they know the truth but lie about it. But Chris Crutcher could also be considered an "outlier" because although his books are always on recommended reading lists put together by teachers and librarians, he's not a household name.

The Golden Compass series (which I found to be absolutely brilliant and beautifully written) and the Narnia series (which I also love, and have never found sanctimonious even though I'm not religious) both involve truth-seeking, it's just that the truth is different from one author (and one reader) to another.
Posted by Terran  on  Fri Feb 22, 2008  at  07:07 AM
Terran, I think I've labelled two series as outliers, have I not? And by 'outlier' I don't mean 'non-mainstream' (mainstream being a matter of popularity); what I mean is that rather than being written primarily to delight, both of those series subjugated imagination to the desire to prosletise. (With the Naria books, this becomes increasingly obvious as you get through them in the order of writing, with The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle being absolutely cringeworthy.)

A series like The Dark Is Rising might be a counter-theme, perhaps - stories rooted in mythology and archetypes rather than overt attempts to push a religious message (though it's been a long time since I read those, and as with Narnia I might well find myself disillusioned if I went back to those now!).

At the end of my last comment I mentioned being able to think of a few books that do rewerd credulity. Allende's teen novels are a good (bad?) example of these: set in 'this world', about 'real' young people, and overtly dealing with contemporary issues, but demanding that the reader accept all sorts of nonsense like memories of past lives and telephathy at face value. In these books, it's egregious because the reader is supposed to believe that the story happend not in a world like-ours-but-magical but in-our-world. As I also said, though, I'm not sure that they're necessarily representative of a significant trend.
Posted by outeast  on  Fri Feb 22, 2008  at  07:33 AM
On a practical level, parents demand children's obedience to ensure the kid's safety.Fairy tales can also be seen as a way for adults to express their own fears, rational and fantastic; and maybe even the resentments they have towards their offspring.
Posted by jw  on  Sat Feb 23, 2008  at  09:05 AM
Think about it from more of a historical point of view. The very first stories and tales were of gods and demons.. Humans trying to explain what they couldn't understand.

A storm approaches, and lightning strikes! It's a destructive force that comes out of the sky and can cause a great deal of destruction! How can you explain that without any of the scientific knowledge we have now?

Easy.. you make a story about a god, living up high, watching over humans who sends the lightning down upon those who anger him.

You hear sounds coming from inside a cave.. it's too dark to see.. you've never heard the noises before.. Today a scientist could go investigate and find geothermal activity. Humans long ago would have called it a demon.

Stories were made to explain things that couldn't be understood, and gradually evolved over time - and because many of these stories could scare - they used them as cautionary tales for children too, as mentioned earlier with little red riding hood.

The concept of magic came from early humans not understanding natural occurances.. and it's evolved from there.. It's now so deep in our culture, our history..

You try explain to a child what causes lightning. You think a toddler would understand all the scientific concepts involved? Thats why it's easier to use magic and make believe - it gives them a degree of understanding that will change once they later develop enough understanding to learn what the truth is.
Posted by sarahearth  on  Wed Feb 27, 2008  at  08:50 PM
umm, the example you gave is not an example of promoting gullibility. Stopping thought is not being gullible. It's sad that children's books are too difficult for literalists to comprehend! Yoda is telling Luke to shut his mind off and tap into the higher consciousness. It's not about blindly following authority figures. In fact Yoda is training Luke to fight the authority figures of his reality.
Posted by me  on  Sun Apr 27, 2008  at  01:27 PM
Hey, Gulliver's Travels was a good book. There's worse people we can encourage to emulate. Actally, that word, emulate, is derived from the habit of the large flightless bird, the emu, of copying the acts of another as a way of social bondng. I read that somewhere, so it must be true.
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Sun Apr 27, 2008  at  02:29 PM
sorry for typos. bad eye day
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Sun Apr 27, 2008  at  02:32 PM
Heh, great etymology Hairy. Can I borrow it?
Posted by outeast  on  Mon Apr 28, 2008  at  01:18 AM
Wouldn't it be nice if we didn;t have analyse whether we should be allowed or allow our children to imagine?
Posted by Jenny G  on  Thu Feb 10, 2011  at  06:16 AM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.