George and Lydia Hadley, two parents living in a futuristic society, worry about their children's mental health when their new virtual reality nursery, which can produce any environment the children imagine, continually projects an African veldt populated by lions feasting on carcasses. When they try to shut it down, the children do not take it well.
Extremely widely read, as it is often included in English Literature textbooks in American schools between 5th and 8th grade.
Tropes used by the story:
- Adult Fear: The idea that you can try to provide all of life's luxuries to your family, and it makes your children spoiled and disturbed. Then when you try to engage in Tough Love and help them, their response is to become hostile, and possibly murderous. Yes, this has happened in real life, with and without advanced technology.
- Ambiguous Ending: The story ends with the therapist Dr. McClean coming to pick up the kids, and he sees them calmly having a tea party in the Veldt, with their parents nowhere in sight. Peter and Wendy offer him a cup of tea, and we don't find out what happens after. The reader has to decide if Dr. McClean figured out what happened and forces the kids out of the playroom, or if they will kill him in turn.
- Artificial Outdoors Display: The nursery has virtual reality capability. It can project on its walls, ceiling and floor a simulation of an outdoor setting. The setting the children like most is an African veldt.
- Calling Parents by Their Name: Peter and Wendy call their father by his first name when he turns off the nursery, signifying they contempt they feel for him.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: Dr. McClean comes just after the playroom has murdered George and Lydia. The kids nonchalantly offer him a cup of tea. He had warned George and Lydia not to turn it back on, under any circumstances. While one man wouldn't do well against lions, Dr. McClean could have unlocked the door to save the parents.
- Creepy Child: Peter and Wendy Hadley, who've replaced their parents in their minds with the AI controlling the house they live in and who fantasize about lions killing their real parents. Even the child psychologist who sees them is creeped out.
- Enfante Terrible: Peter and Wendy, who murder their parents because they've threatened to cut off their holographic nursery.
- Failsafe Failure: George and Lydia note that the playroom is supposed to be able to respond to anyone's commands, precisely to avoid turning it into a power play. He gets concerned when it stops listening to him.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The story tastefully cuts away from the moment where George and Lydia realize they are going to be eaten by lions, and that their kids were fantasizing about this for a while. Instead, we see Dr. McClean arriving and seeing the grisly aftermath.
- Holodeck Malfunction: George fears this is happening with the nursery when it fails to respond to his commands to take on a different form than the African veldt, and when the lions appear to become real enough to actually hurt whoever visits the room. That last part is proven to be correct at the end.
- Idiot Ball: Despite being the first one to realize how worrying their children's behavior and the scene in the nursery was and being very fearful of it throughout the story, Lydia lets the kids play in the nursery one last time after George turned it off, saying she doesn't see the harm in it.
- Job-Stealing Robot: Lydia has come consider their fully automated house to be this."That's just it. I feel like I dont belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot."
- Kids Are Cruel: Your parents want to shut down your favorite playroom? Kill them! Even worse, they've been fantasizing about lions eating their parents long before George is worried about the playroom and instead had grounded Peter for a different misdemeanor.
- Oh, Crap!: Dr. McClean has this reaction when he arrives at the house, with George and Lydia nowhere in sight, and the kids are in the unlocked playroom. They offer him a cup of tea as he tries to see what the lions are eating.
- Only Sane Man: Dr. McClean is this in the story. While George at first is amused at the idea that the playroom is going wrong and needs to see the evidence firsthand, and Lydia enables the kids' worst behaviors, the psychologist only needs to spend a few minutes in the playroom to see the red flags. He orders George to shut down the entire house and pack up what they need for an extended stay at his clinic. It's a shame that the kids threw such huge temper tantrums.
- Parental Substitute: Child psychologist David McClean warns George and Lydia that their children have come to view the nursery, and on a larger scale the house, as this, and see their actual, biological parents as a threat to this substitute parent
- Parents as People: George and Lydia are a loving couple who care deeply about each other and their kids, but who unintentionally neglect them since the robot house does an inhumanly perfect job of looking after them than they do. To their credit, they realize this and resolve to fix things. Unfortunately, this ends up killing them; the kids throw such a huge temper tantrum that Lydia convinces George that a few minutes won't hurt them, and George finally agrees to shut them up.
- Rhetorical Question Blunder: When George suggests taking a break from the house, Peter asks semi-sarcastically if that means he would have to paint his own art and brush his teeth. His father gives a Blunt "Yes", much to Peter's horror.
- Self-Made Orphan: At the end of the story, Peter and Wendy trap their parents in the nursery and have the (holographic) lions eat them. Then they host a tea party on the veldt just as Dr. McClean arrives.
- Shout-Out: The children are named after Peter and Wendy from Peter Pan, and like them reject their parents in favor of living in a fantasy world.
- Smart House: The Hadley family is living in one called "The Happylife Home". It cost a fortune, and by the end of the story the parents are completely creeped out by it and plan to move out.
- Spared by the Adaptation: The X Minus One adaptation notes that the parents survive, but the experience traumatized them.
- Spoiled Brat: Both Peter and Wendy have become very, very spoiled due to living in the futuristic house and being allowed to do pretty much whatever they want.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: The children's fixation on playing in an African veldt, while lions kill and eat something in the distance disturbs their parents enough to call a child psychologist, and is a sign that there is something seriously wrong with them. Of course, it gets clinched when the kids use the playroom to murder their own parents.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The supposed year isn't stated, but it's culturally identical to 1950 except with more advanced technology. In addition to the smart house, there's mention of transportation by rockets.
- Uncertain Doom: It's never confirmed if Peter and Wendy will also feed the child psychologist to the playroom. On the one hand, he wasn't the one that physically shut it off. They know, however, that he was coming to pick them up for extended psychological treatment.