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May 14 2013

Are Bible Stories Way Too Aggressive for Kids?

By at 3:39 pm
daniel in the lion's den

Daniel in the lion’s den.

Living in a predominantly non-Jewish environment, we make a conscious effort to cultivate our kids’ Jewish identities. So I bought a couple of Bible storybooks, wanting to give my kids the main highlights of biblical narrative.

While I love Torah study and recognize that every word is ripe with meaning, I now see how the “juicy” parts of biblical narrative are difficult to digest. And when we cozy up on the couch at bedtime, I am confronted with page after page of troubling tales. There’s the fratricide of Cain and Abel, the slavery and the killing of the firstborn child in Egypt, Samson murdering his aggressors and committing suicide in the Samson and Delilah narrative, and of course, a Prophet Daniel and his brush with death in the Lion’s den (spoiler alert: he comes out alive). Night after night I find myself sanitizing these stories, glossing over the violent acts that are hard for me to swallow. 

But my son loves it. Maybe because it gives expression to aggressive tendencies of his own (while we don’t have any guns at home, he loves a particular set of sword and shield bought for him by dear Grandma… that he takes out with particular glee when he knows he can use it to torment his little sister).

In the grand scheme of things, I am happy that my son is connecting to the Torah and is forming the foundation of Jewish literacy. I feel like becoming familiar with the sacred text will serve him well in his life and as he grows as a Jew. But on the other hand, I am afraid that it encourages and supports his aggressive behavior (why don’t I treat these books like some of the other ones I find upsetting, I don’t know…we hid his Spiderman book because I just couldn’t take seeing the pictures of one of the good guys’ head smashed in by a bad guy anymore…).

I am sure that much ink has been spilled by educators, child psychologists, and rabbis about the relative value of exposing your children to aggressive narrative and its impact on identity formation (most children’s literature ain’t so pretty either–Humpty Dumpty meeting his demise on a sidewalk, the three little pigs as a savory supper for the big bad wolf, etc.). Experts probably talk about how the dark side of children’s literature reflects the dark side of a child’s inner life. They probably talk about the security that a child must sense when they can confront these darker/angrier/aggressive feelings on the pages of storybooks while in the embrace of a loving parent. (But I confess, as a mother of three children under the age of 5, I haven’t exactly done extensive research.)

So I put it to you, Kveller parents–do you have any good insights about how to talk to kids about the darker side of biblical narrative? Are there versions of Bible storybooks that you have enjoyed that focus on the more uplifting messages of our sacred text?

With the holiday of Shavuot around the corner, which venerates the giving of the Torah, I need a revelation around how to encourage my son to love the Torah, all of it, not just its dark side.

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