Before we launched our first title, Cruelty Bites, we wrote the post Who's got the guts it takes not to indoctrinate? where we addressed the difference between starting with an idea or value we, as adult authorities, deem necessary and desirable to instill in children and starting with a genuine problem, doubt or question which we, as adult guiding companions believe might be interesting to inquire into together with children.
When we do a workshop or presentation of Cruelty Bites and the Wonder Ponder Visual Philosophy for Children in general, at the end, we often ask participants to suggest topics for future Wonder Ponder boxes they would be interested in exploring.
Almost without exception, all suggestions come from a perceived need for children to learn how to think 'properly' about certain realities. Thinking 'properly' here means thinking what we think they should think. In recent presentations with children and parents, for instance, two of the suggestions put forward were 'kindness' and 'accepting diversity'.
LET US START WITH KINDNESS.
'Besides cruelty, you could also do a box on a nicer topic, like kindness'. Although the suggestion came from a child, several of the parents there agreed. They liked the idea of visual philosophy for children, they liked the approach and the way of prompting dialogue and thought, but was is really called for to start off the series with cruelty? 'That's my only doubt', one mother said to us.
So why didn't we start with kindness or something more 'positive'? The fact is that kindness is, philosophically, rather less interesting than cruelty, or rather, it is so only in so far as it is the flip side of cruelty or 'evil'. Why? Mainly, because we don't tend to have trouble explaining kindness. Cruelty, on the other hand, we find unsettling. Gratuitous cruelty leaves us, quite literally, without words. How can we accept these acts as part of human nature without feeling shaken? How can we even recognise ourselves in certain cruel or even 'evil' behaviours and still claim that we are generally decent people? There is a clash of concepts, a clash of ideals and a clash of goals. And that's what lights the spark that leads to our concern, to our philosophical engagement and to our desire to search for answers through reflection. Imagine a box with 14 scenes on kindness. What would it be like? How would it engage? Interest? Provoke thought?
When people suggest we might want to do boxes on topics such as kindness or generosity, what they are really asking of us is to provide positive models rather than models deemed as negative. But at Wonder Ponder, we do not consider that the cruelty scenes included in our first title present negative models. Rather, they show models recognisable as ourselves or as someone we might know in attitudes we find difficult to come to terms with and understand. Our need to understand them better is what makes them genuinely thought-provoking.
The children's literature market is full of positive models of kindness, generosity and tolerance. Children are fed these messages non-stop: be good, be accepting of others, share.
To understand to what extent children are bombarded with these commandments and messages, check out a 6-7 year old's comment on the scene below:
-Is it cruel?
-Because he's not sharing it with the baby lions.
AND WHAT ABOUT ACCEPTING DIVERSITY?
Here the wording itself is problematic. We could do a box about diversity, or about 'otherness'. A lot to think about there. But we cannot 'think' about accepting diversity. We cannot 'think' about tolerance. Expressed this way, what is really wanted here is a commandment dressed up as thought process: 'be tolerant', 'accept those different from you'. At Wonder Ponder we are not interested in commandments, but rather in scratching those commandments and seeing what's underneath. We are interested in nuances, in exceptions, in doubts. We are interested in thinking about situations where our initial impulse clashes with the commandment, analysing the validity of our initial impulse, understanding the reasons behind our impulses, thinking about them. Is it possible that this thought process might end up reinforcing the commandment some wanted to instill in the first place? In many cases, it is highly probable, indeed. But the path covered before taking on the 'commandment' is very different in one case and another.
As we said in the post Who's got the guts it takes not to indoctrinate? we mentioned at the start, we are far more interested in the depth, complexity and authenticity of values and positions when they are the result of a free, uncensored process of reflection rather than of a process of indoctrination, imposition or even gentle prod or influence in the 'suitable' direction.
Having said this, we love getting suggestions for future boxes! We'd love to hear them on our Facebook page.