As millions of young fans worldwide dive into the latest Harry Potter book, a Purdue University expert on childhood grief and mourning says the book's portrayal of death provides a great educational opportunity.
Heather Servaty-Seib (ser-VA-tee sibe), a counseling psychologist and an assistant professor of educational studies, says the latest book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," as well as J.K Rowling's other Potter books, are good tools for teaching children about the nature of death.
In the new Potter book, a character dies, and in previous books, death has been a persistent theme. Earlier books have explored Harry's feelings after the death of his parents, as well as the deaths of other characters.
"In general, I think it's important to expose children to the idea of death early," Servaty-Seib says. "Children are curious about death at a very young age. It's like birth, growth, aging and other aspects of human development. It's something children need to know about."
Even though this can be a heavy theme for young readers, it is an important topic to explore before death touches them directly, such as through the loss of a family member or a loved one.
"It's not a good idea to shield children from death," Servaty-Seib says. "It will serve them well to learn about it early so they know more about the facts of death and be better prepared to deal with feelings they experience in the future."
One way the Potter books help children understand death is through the investigation of the title character's grief reactions, including thoughts, feelings and behaviors, after the loss of his parents, she says. Harry's parents die early in his life, and as he ages, the books follow the evolution of his grief.
"Rowling does a good job of displaying Harry's grief and the way it changes over time," Servaty-Seib says. "The books show that even though Harry never physically knew his parents, he develops and maintains a relationship with them."
One drawback to the Potter books, though, is that virtually all of the deaths are violent in nature, she says. This can give young readers the wrong impression, as most deaths in real life are caused by illness and accidents.
"I am concerned that all the deaths in the books are violent homicides, and all have to do with magic," she says. "The risk is that children may view death as something caused only by magical forces."
Therefore, parents should be involved when their children are reading Potter books.
"If the kids are interested, it is not feasible to keep the books from them," Servaty-Seib says. "Parents should read with their children, answer their questions and have conversations with them."
Even though the books deal with a serious, sometimes scary, subject matter, Servaty-Seib says the Potter books might be more appropriate for young readers than the movie versions.
"When children read things, they can control the images they create in their own minds," she says. "With movies, children are presented with images, sometimes too scary for them, which they cannot control."
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