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Why Kids Love Harry Potter—and Hogwarts School

It's because Hogwarts is dangerous, and our society is too safety-obsessed

GM Foy
Source: GM Foy

After years of watching my kids and their friends fall under the spell of Harry Potter, I've finally figured out the big reason the HP bewitchment has worked so powerfully on children.

It's not the narrative, though the battle with the Dark Lord is compelling. It's not the characters, though Hermione, Ron, Harry and cohorts are pretty three-dimensional and attractive to readers. Nor is it the vicarious power of magic, much as children like to fantasize that they might possess wizarding powers in a world where adults hold the reins.

No. The big reason, I think, is this: the story's chief setting, Hogwarts, the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is an incredibly dangerous place. And our kids, coddled and protected from virtually any avoidable danger in this uber-safe society, want and require danger.

Imagine a modern American parent taking a tour of Hogwarts with a view to sending her or his child there. Huge stone staircases that shift randomly over halls a hundred feet in height? A venomous basilisk, that kills with a glance, in the basement? Security guards who make Dracula look like Mary Poppins? A huge "whomping willow" outside that seeks nothing more than to smash students' heads in, and not even a safety fence around the tree? I mean, where is OSHA when you need them? (The accompanying photo, incidentally, features Edinburgh Castle, JK Rowling's real-life model for Hogwarts.)

And what about the classes: stunning spells that throw kids 20 feet through the air? "Potions" that sicken you or cause you to break out in buboes or become sexually obsessed with a stranger? Riding lessons on flying hippogriffs?

And Quidditch? Don't get me started. Kids zooming around on broomsticks (no safety belts!) with bowling balls flying at their heads 200 feet in the air? Forget the tour, honey, we're leaving.

Yet the kids have the right idea. Research by Ellen Sandseter, of Queen Maud University in Norway, shows that kids need to confront danger in order to be able to overcome fear and cope with a potentially dangerous world. If they don’t—if they are kept safe from everything, not allowed to take risks—they tend to become more frightened, as normal fears turn into phobias. Sandseter cites one study showing that kids exposed to risky heights early on are paradoxically less scared of heights later in life.

Some researchers believe that keeping kids insulated from low levels of potentially risky behavior, and associated thrills and chills, might lead to increasing vulnerability to autism-spectrum and attention-deficit disorders.

And yet, ever since the ‘80s, America’s adults have become more and more obsessed with excising all risk from their children’s environments. Playgrounds are stripped of whirligigs (possible broken ankles) and jungle gyms (sprains, broken arms, OMG!). Doctors test for a crowd of allergies and, inevitably, find that little Johnny is indeed over-sensitive to Brazil nuts and must be fed special lunches. Kids are seldom allowed to walk back and forth to school for fear of stranger abduction—though statistics show kidnapping of children is both incredibly rare and no more prevalent in 2015 than it was in 1975.

What has changed, of course, is our communities, or lack thereof; most of us don’t live in friendly neighborhoods anymore. As Robert Putnam demonstrated in Bowling Alone, we live in cold suburbs or various grades of urban, surrounded by strangers who would, too often, as soon sue you as knock on the kitchen door to borrow a stick of butter. Living that way is truly frightening, whereas to live surrounded by friends or at least known and often helpful neighbors increases the sense of security, and the concomitant willingness to push the risk envelope a bit.

I have to believe that children, instinctively, know what they need—and if their parents won’t let them sample it in the real world, they’ll look for it in Harry Potter books, and in the less salubrious (and even more ‘dangerous’) environments of first-person-shooter video games. (It seems likely, too, that the great sense of community characteristic of Hogwarts is another reason the series is so popular among children and teens.)

So there’s another ray of hope to be glimpsed here: perhaps, one day, the adults they become will remember the children they were, and strive to create healthy, helpful communities of their own; places where they are secure enough to let their children walk to school unshepherded, knowing Lord Voldemort only exists between the covers of a book.