Why Harry Potter Is Making Our Kids Miserable

This month's Atlantic contains an article with the provocative title, "How to Land Your Kid In Therapy,", making the somewhat less provocative argument that all the helicopter parenting of today is producing kids who can't solve their own problems and will end up unhappy. It's hard to argue with, but I want to point the finger of accusation in another direction: Harry Potter.

Well, not so much him, but much of children's literature. The typical children's book has a few common elements. For instance, the hero is probably an orphan. There's a practical reason for this: Parents represent stability and safety, and our hero needs to go on a dangerous journey, which is rather less dangerous if he or she can just go back to the folks at the end of the day. There's usually some wise elderly figure who gives advice and aid but doesn't really constrain the hero's behavior. But the key element of the story is usually this: At the beginning of the book, he thinks he's just a regular kid. Maybe he's miserable, or maybe he's just bored, but he doesn't think there's anything heroic about him. He might think he's a bit different, though -- maybe he's bookish, or maybe he gets pushed around by bullies at school. But then he learns that he is anything but ordinary. He's the possessor of magical powers, or at the very least, the fate of the world depends on his smarts and his pluck. He discovers this, and off we go to the adventure.

Not only does this make sense as a narrative device that can drive an adventure story, it taps into some very deep emotions. Every kid thinks he or she is different at some point. Every kid wishes he could have power -- the power to move objects with your mind, or travel through time, or whatever. Because when you're a kid, you have no power. You're physically small and weak, and adults are constantly telling you what to do. So it's incredibly compelling to imagine yourself not only as someone to whom exciting things happen but as someone who is more than those around you.

The problem is that then you begin to grow up and realize you're just a lowly muggle.

I'll grant that this is hardly a new theme in children's literature. But is it possible that all of us, weaned on these stories, end up inevitably disappointed with mundane life as it actually exists? It doesn't stop once we grow up, of course -- movies and television are all about people better looking than you leading more interesting lives than you. Nobody on TV watches TV, or goes to the bathroom, or spends hours filling out their taxes. Every job people do on the screen is more interesting than that job actually is in real life, since all the dull stuff has been omitted. You wouldn't want to watch it otherwise. But that particular narrative -- ordinary kid turns out to be extraordinary, saves world -- has a particular ability to make actual life seem like a let-down.

But go ahead and blame your parents -- it's probably their fault, too.

Advertisement