What kids can learn from Harry Potter

Harry Potter mania is on rise, again. Fans are already planning to camp out to buy their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when book stores open on July 21. This is supposed to be the last of the seven books in the series, but it will not end debate about its effects upon children. Elizabeth Vozzola, a professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College, Connecticut, has conducted extensive research on what children learn from the novels. MercatorNet asked her what she had discovered.

MercatorNet: Is the incredible popularity of the series due only to the clever plots and rich imagination, or is it appealing to something deeper?

Vozzola: I need to address this question not only as a psychologist but also as a lifelong passionate reader and a former bookstore manager. I have always found that the best children's literature (eg, works by authors like Phillip Pullman or Madeline L'Engle) often addresses mythic themes of good and evil and employs archetypal characters such as the Wise Man, the Hero, the Maiden, the Trickster. Psychologists such as Jerome Bruner argue that humans are essentially hard-wired to be drawn to narrative as a way to make sense of their own lives and the world around them. In short, I believe the Harry Potter books appeal to the deep human need to make meaning through stories.

MercatorNet: What particular virtues can children take from the series?

Vozzola: We asked them that question specifically. Here's a line from our paper: "All groups [ages] identified courage and friendship as major themes. However, at the post-graduate educational level, participants were significantly more likely to identify loyalty and obedience as major themes than were less educated readers. Interestingly, it was elementary school participants (about ages 10-13) and post-graduate participants who were most likely to list kindness as a key theme (83.7% and 76.2% respectively) in contrast with our middle school/high school (57.9%) and college samples (58.8%)."

MercatorNet: Some critics claim that the books are subversive of authority. Conservative ones say this is bad; liberals say it is good. Which are right?

Vozzola: Well, everyone, from our youngest fourth graders to our adult PhDs had to agree that Harry Potter didn't always respect the rules. But, especially in Amie Senland's current study of perceptions of Biblical and liberal Christian families, we asked a lot of specific questions about whether participants (kids and parents) thought it was okay for the headmaster Dumbledore to sometimes let Harry and his friends break the rules. What children seemed to understand very clearly was that he was allowing them to break rules to do things that saved lives.

Again from our paper: "All groups perceived that Harry kept trying when faced with obstacles (all groups 100%), had courage (all groups 100%), and helped others (elementary 98%, all others 100%)."

MercatorNet: Does the Harry Potter series send confusing messages to children about the occult and magic? Why do a lot of adults think so?

Vozzola: Again, we asked that question specifically. Children told us No. Their body language was terrific. We'd ask them: "Do you think people can really do the sort of magic in the Harry Potter books?" and they would roll their eyes a bit as if to say "And these people have PhDs????"

Amie's research suggests that more liberal Christian parents interpret the magic in Harry Potter as fantasy but Biblical Christians parents (who believe the Bible is revealed truth) are much more likely to interpret it as occult. Biblical Christians point to specific Bible passages forbidding sorcery and quote them frequently when they argue against the book.

What our work shows, however, is that the messages in the book are overwhelmingly pro-social and that the readers we sampled had a clear grasp of the fact that the books were fantasy. (Of course some of the younger ones certainly thought it would be very cool if people could actually do these things!)

MercatorNet: But don't kids need a certain maturity and discrimination to handle the increasingly darker tone of the books?

Vozzola: I would agree. Ideally, parents have a good sense of their child's emotional and intellectual maturity and use that knowledge to guide them to appropriate media. For example, I didn't let my younger son watch the TV show The Simpsons until I could see that he understood irony. I wanted to be sure that he saw Bart Simpson as providing ironic commentary on American life, not as providing a role model!

As a develomentalist, I would generally see the final books as more appropriate for children of 9 or 10 and up not because they have a dark tone (read any book of fairy tales) but because younger children are not going to understand fully some of the important emotional themes. However any child who has been reading the series is going to want to read this final book. The best solution seems to me to be to read the book aloud to younger readers so you can stop and talk about things with them.

MercatorNet: Any inside tips on who is going to die in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?

Vozzola: Would that we did! Our research team is as curious as the rest of the world. My own personal guess is that Neville and Snape will not make it to the end. I've had a theory for a long time that Neville is the person the prophecy refers to and that everyone from Voldemort to Ron and Herminone have been fooled into focusing on Harry. I think Neville, who has increasingly shown courage and unique abilities, will sacrifice himself for the forces of good. In myth, the hero has many trials to overcome before prevailing and coming into his/her own. Harry's certainly had his share of trials. I for one wish him a "lived happily ever after" ending.

Elizabeth Vozzola is a professor of psychology at Saint Joseph College, West Hartford CT.


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