Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Many kids and adults I know blazed through the The Hunger Games and couldn't wait to see the movie, but I've avoided Suzanne Collins' series until now because everything I heard about it sounded so grim and violent.
Then, last week I ran into a friend who had just read the books and seen the movie because her son is obsessed with the series. We wondered together why these stories are so appealing to our kids, given the dark world they depict. Of course, kids like scary stories, and many beloved childrens' classics — from Alice in Wonderland to the Narnia series — are beloved in part because they are so frightening, but The Hunger Games takes the menace and violence to a whole new level.
My friend speculated that kids relate to Katniss and the other charaters in the book because they feel like those kids. "It's not conscious, of course, but they get, on some level, that the stakes in their world are high, and the future is dangerous," she said.
Writer and cartoonist Bruce Handy expressed a similar idea in a recent comic in The New York Times. Poking fun at parenting obsessions in two recent books, Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Handy introduced "The Hunger Games Mother." Who is this parent? "The Hunger Games Mother" devises fatal punishments for the child who doesn't practice her instrument long enough, coaches her child to eliminate (literally) other children competing for top academic spots, and sicks "muttations" (vicious dog-like creatures) on the child who receives a mediocre grade. She even dictates her child's friendships, since the wrong friends could force the child to "pay the ultimate price: enrollment in a safety school." Handy observes, "Who better to help parents navigate the brutal, futuristic dystopia that is contemporary childhood?"
Handy's comic is funny, but it hits uncomfortably close to home. Most parents these days are putting pressure on their kids to do well, get into the best high school, pursue a million activities, and earn high grades because college is competitive, paying for college is competitive, and getting a job after college is more competitive still. Even if parents try to insulate their kids, pressure and stress are part of the current zeitgeist, and our kids can't help picking it up. For every person who has struggled through the recent recession, the lesson is clear and it's hard not to pass on: it's a tough, unforgiving world out there, and not everyone is going to make it.
I'm not sure what the answer is: the pressure parents feel is real, but so is our children's need to enjoy their brief childhoods. I'm trying to find a balance between encouraging my kids to do their best, and creating interludes of careless, childish fun — late nights with friends, afternoons wandering the city, a splurge at the ice cream store, a spontaneous trip to the beach. If you ask them, my kids will likely tell you I haven't achieved that balance yet (too many sleepless nights with visions of financial aid forms dancing in my head) but I'm trying.
I'd love to hear how it's going at your house.