'A Parent's Guide to Harry Potter'
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Some Harry Potter fans have embraced the series as a valuable way to instruct their children about faith and morality. One such fan, author Gina Burkart, sees many parallels to Christianity in the Potter books and argues that parents can use the series as a teaching tool to discuss their faith and spiritual issues with their children. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about her ideas and her book, A Parent's Guide to Harry Potter.
Why did you want to write this book?
GINA BURKART: I was reading the books with my children and I found that when they were talking about Harry, they would immediately start talking about their lives without realizing they were doing it. So it was a window of opportunity for me to see what was going on with them, and also a chance for me to talk about what I went through as a child or what I’m still going through. Harry has a lot of the same struggles that we do. And it’s not just one struggle; it’s several. All of the characters struggle in the book. They must choose between good and evil, which brings in our faith.
Why do you think that children are so attracted to the Harry Potter series?
BURKART: I think children’s minds think imaginatively anyway, as do adults, and there isn’t much out there. Narnia is coming back now. Disney is doing a movie of The Chronicles of Narnia, but there is nothing new out there for them to grasp onto. Harry Potter is the first really imaginative book that has come out that has grabbed everybody. I think it is that there is a lack of creativity. We don’t have imagination in education anymore. Everything is focused on thought and reality. Our minds are looking for that fantasy world that we are drawn to, and that is what our faith is like. Our faith is true, but it’s a spiritual realm that you can’t measure with fact all the time. You can’t touch the Holy Spirit. You can feel the presence, but you can’t measure it. So I think that is what probably attracts them.
In the book you discuss fairy tales and the way children can learn from them. Do you consider Harry Potter to be a fairy tale?
BURKART: I do. It has all of the same elements of a fairy tale, and I break that down in my book, A Parent’s Guide to Harry Potter. And also, I found this out in my research, a scholar has found that fairy tales help children release their repressed fears. Their fears are already there. They are already fearing the things that these stories are bringing to the surface, and by reading the stories – and better yet, reading them with an adult that they care about and trust– helps them release and talk through them and understand them. So I go a little bit further. This scholar was saying letting them read it will bring them to the surface. I’m saying bring it to the surface, and then help them work through it.
What is your advice to parents? How should they approach Harry Potter?
BURKART: I think they should read it with their children and enjoy it. I mean they are fun. They are an enjoyable read, and it’s not something that is hard to do. Then they should talk about it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know your child and to share a conversation with your child. I mean how often do we have that bridge between adults and children where we share the wonder and the joy and talk about real-life issues? It makes them feel almost like an adult. They are being entered into the adult world, and they can really think about the big issues of life.
What are some of the parallels to Christianity that you see in Harry Potter?
BURKART: The biggest parallel is that love saves Harry. It was the love of his mother that leaves the mark that saved him from Voldemort, and that is a parallel to Christ. Christ died for us and it was His love that saved us. And God is love. So if you look at it in that aspect, it’s not love really that is saving Harry, it’s God. Magic doesn’t solve his problems. But if he learned about God, instead of magic, then this may take a whole different turn. That’s an opportunity to enter into my children that magic isn’t making things better. Magic isn’t bringing his parents back. It’s kind of in the background, but the real life issues are there despite the magic. But we have something more powerful. We have God who loves us, and God is who saved Harry. That brings in a wonderful discussion of our faith lives.
A lot of people would argue that the Harry Potter series could open the door to the occult or to witchcraft for young impressionable minds. What would say to those people?
BURKART: I would say to them – and I don’t see that as being a direct link, but if that’s how they feel and I know there are some people out there who do – I would tell them to look through the books and find out what is attracting them in the book. What is it that is filling a need for them, and then open that door and minister to that. And tell them, “I’ve got something more powerful to tell you about. I have Christianity. Have you met Jesus? Have you met God? Look at what this could do for you. Magic isn’t solving Harry’s problems, but this can.”
I think we need to realize that perhaps the attraction that is there for witchcraft, if they are seeing that, is maybe pointing to a need in society that isn’t being met. We are not ministering to them as we should. And this gives us an opportunity to understand them and understand their needs.
You mentioned the repressed fears that children have. With a series like Harry Potter, which many people consider to be scary in itself, how can horror books help children overcome their fears?
BURKART: There are so many things that Harry has to deal with. I think the biggest fear that our children have is losing their parents. So right off the bat you have Harry becoming an orphan and having to live with stepparents that are horrible. They make him live in a cupboard and he has to deal with a stepbrother that bullies him around. Children are dealing with this. We have a lot of broken families, a lot of broken homes, and they are feeling isolated. This is a way to work through that. And if you are reading it with your child you can talk to them about the fear they may have.
Also, one of my favorite themes is the boggarts. In order to deal with a boggart, which takes the shape of your worst fear, you have to picture it in a comical situation. So that was a wonderful opportunity for me to find out what my children’s fears were. We’ve read the book a couple of times and seen the movie, and through the years the fears have changed. So it’s good to see that and it’s also a way to empower our children to deal with their fears when they do encounter them in real life and I’m not there to work through it with them. They’ve already talked about how to do it and they can do it on their own.
One of the chapters in your book is titled, “The Real Issues of Harry Potter.” What do you believe are the real issues?
BURKART: The issue of fear that we’ve mentioned is one. There is also the issue of bullying. I don’t think there is a child who goes to school who will not encounter a bully. That is something that is very real, and they need to learn how to deal with it. They may find that they are a bully themselves. That may not be a way that they look at themselves. That’s a way to change the way that they are acting.
Also you can take your children through the issue of choices and consequences. Harry makes choices and sometimes the consequences are bad. This provides a way to talk through it. Ask your child, “What would you have done in this situation? Did he make a good choice?” And if you stop at that point before you find out the consequence, then it is interesting to see what the consequence is. Children feel empowered by doing that.
There is sibling rivalry that comes through with the Weasleys, also living in a financially-challenged family like the Weaselys versus the Malvoys who are very, very rich and tried to use that to buy friendship. You can look at the issue of friendship.
Another huge issue is anger. And anger, as we find in the Star Wars series – and I link this together – we see that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. Harry starts down that path, and in Book five he is very angry. And I think our children are very angry at times. Helping them release that anger and go to the root of what that fear is, and deal with that fear or deal with that “boggart”, can prevent them from going down that slippery slope where they end up in all of that suffering.
For parents who want to use the Harry Potter series to start discussions with their children, what would those conversations look like? Do you have any practical suggestions for parents?
BURKART: In the book, I have numerous places where I include discussion questions that they can use as a guide. But to be honest, the come naturally as you read the book. So you could use those to get you started, but then the best thing to do is to draw from your own children, because they will immediately start to tell you about themselves and their everyday lives. Then you can go from there. You just talk to them and dialogue with them. It is amazing how that flows into everyday conversation as the relationship becomes stronger.
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