Originally published in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine – June 2015
As a lover of books, I thrilled when my first child finally stopped squirming during storytime. Reaching for the beautiful green and gold volume of Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales she’d been given at birth, I began to read: “‘I will tell you what, husband,’ [said] the wife; ‘we will take the children . . . into the forest . . . then we will go to our work and leave them alone; they will never find the way home again, and we shall be quit of them.” Gah! I skimmed ahead: “Then Gretel gave her a push, . . . and she shut the iron door . . . . Oh how frightfully she howled! But Gretel ran away, and left the wicked witch to burn miserably.” I snapped the book shut and shoved it under our chair, having no interest in adding the encouragement of separation anxiety or the normalization of violence to our bedtime routine.
My reaction is quite common. In a 2009 poll of parents conducted by TheBabyWebsite.com, three-quarters “try to avoid stories which might give their children nightmares and half of all parents wouldn’t consider reading a single fairy tale to their child until they reach the age of five.”
Unfortunately, experts say that succumbing to this protective impulse does our kids a disservice. From a young age, children intuit life’s constant threat of death, illness, abandonment, maltreatment, and betrayal. When presented in a certain way, traditional fairy tales actually help kids process their fears of physical and emotional tragedy, as well as provide a slew of other developmental benefits.
A brief history of fairy tales
The stories we think of as fairy tales began as folk tales with paranormal elements crafted for an adult audience in the tradition of oral storytelling. Well-known collections produced by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—as well as the works of Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald—are based upon these “fast-paced adventure stories filled with bawdy episodes, violent scenes, and [bathroom] humor,” writes Maria Tatar in Off with Their Heads! The goal was to entertain, and there was no need to sugarcoat. In the original “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, the king doesn’t awaken the slumbering princess with a kiss; he rapes her. And an early version of “Rumpelstiltskin” reportedly ends with the little man lodging himself in the miller’s daughter’s genitalia.
In producing their first edition, the Grimms made drastic changes, mixing versions of the tales, filling in plot holes, resolving paradoxes, and eliminating off-color humor. They also added a Christian sensibility, including moral instruction and happy endings. The resulting tales were still awfully intense. The wicked stepmothers in “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” were biological mothers, Rapunzel got pregnant, and Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper.
In subsequent editions, the Grimms further “censored…to make the tales more accessible to [middle-class reading audiences] and more considerate of children as readers and listeners of stories,” explains Jack Zipes by way of introducing The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. They left in the violence, however, and actually added quite a bit of bloodshed to cautionary tales.
Over the last 200 years, countless versions have further modified the original tales. We are left with stories that feature adult themes like love without the sex, subversive plots with abrupt happy endings, and gruesome violence described in a nonplussed tone.
Why can’t our kids get enough of this strange genre?
In almost all versions, the “descriptions are bare; the dialogues, curt; and the action, swift. The storytellers get to the point quickly,” writes Zipes. In Enchanted Hunters, Tatar explains that children are drawn in by “wow” moments “that offer up the exquisite, the terrifying, and everything in between.” Though many tales moralize, quite a few feature excitingly illicit behavior like lying and stealing. Moreover, she tells us, the blood and gore that result when fairy tale characters are disobedient, “meant to repel children,” can actually prove “a source of unending fascination.”
Kids are also attracted to the simplicity of fairy tales. The characters’ problems are ordinary, and the “figures are clearly drawn”; they are “either good or bad, nothing in between,” explains Bruno Bettelheim in his famous Freudian treatise on the subject, The Uses of Enchantment. “All characters are typical rather than unique,” he tells us, and as a result they are known only by their roles like “girl,” “stepmother,” or “giant” (when they do have names they tend to be either descriptive, like Cinderella, because she was covered in the grime of cinders, or common, like Gretel was in the Grimms’ Germany).
As a result, the characters are readily relatable. Kids see themselves in exploited Cinderella, who’s forced to do chores, impish Pinocchio, who fails to be good despite multiple attempts, innocent Snow White, who suffers at the whim of a grown-up dealing with her own issues, and impetuous Jack, who is denied the wonderful things that big people have. They see others as well. Archetypes such as kings, queens, and giants stand in for power-wielding adults; wolves, witches, and tricksters represent predators and evil impulses; charming princes, helpful animals, and wise old people personify the forces of good; and fairies, godmothers, and other meddling magical creatures symbolize the vagaries of life outside one’s control.
The transparency and familiarity of fairy tale characters and their woes—in addition to quick plot development, shock value, and repetition—greatly appeal to children.
The benefits of reading fairy tales
Whether we should read the dark tales that so enthrall them is another matter. As it turns out, there are many reasons to do so:
Enable kids to work through fears and conflict
In both literal and symbolic fashion, fairy tales address what Bettelheim calls “the psychological problems of growing up”: issues such as sibling rivalry, transformation, being tested, forbidden fruits, feeling oppressed, powerlessness, and learning to identify those who wish one ill, as well as fears of abandonment, being unloved, and death.
According to Bettelheim, by “project[ing] themselves onto fictional characters, [children] work through real world fears and internal conflict on an imaginary stage.” Under this school of thought, children need “dreadful creatures of the imagination to conserve idealized images of their parents,” Tatar writes. In Bettelheim’s most famous example, the “typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother” allows kids to feel angry about the small injustices they suffer at the hands of their mothers without threatening that bond. Similarly, he says, “since a giant is an imaginary figure, the child can fantasize . . . to overpower . . . him, and still retain real grownup people as protectors.”
When we attempt to hide life’s ugliness, children are left feeling that they alone have destructive impulses. But “these older tales legitimise the murderous and violent instincts that all children experience, freeing them from…guilt,” British author Tim Lott writes. And when we read them the stories, we tacitly credit the difficulties they face and sanction their stormy internal worlds.
The fantastical elements of fairy tales—such as supernatural creatures and magical powers—provide children with a framework for their own imaginings. Make-believe play in turn enriches children cognitively, socially, and emotionally.
Teach history and promote cultural literacy
Fairy tales offer a springboard for historical discussion (“What is churning, and why is she doing that to the butter?”). Also, since they are part of a shared culture, familiarity with fairy tales means understanding references to things like “the Goldilocks principle” down the line.
Encourage literacy through storytelling
Reading tales aloud leads to compounding literacy growth, since kids who hear stories develop a “sense of story”—a basic understanding of style, setting, narrative voice, character, plot, sequencing, and theme—that makes them more likely to tell stories themselves, and in so doing learn to comprehend, and then relate, more complicated stories. Beginning with “once upon a time” starts our kids on the path to reading and writing “happily ever after.”
Modern parenting guru Harvey Karp describes “side-door lessons” as a way to “sneak into our children’s minds and plant seeds of kindness and good character without our little ones feeling lectured to.” By relating fantastical struggles with right and wrong, but not explicitly stating morals, fairy tales provide one such “gentle, indirect, undemanding, and therefore psychologically more effective way” to convey “the advantages of moral behavior,” writes Bettelheim. “[A] compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself [is] presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination,” adds Vigen Guroian, author of Tending the Heart of Virtue.
Build problem-solving skills and resilience
Although the specific solutions of fairy tales, like chopping down a beanstalk, rarely apply to our kids’ problems, they model how the downtrodden and overwhelmed can get out of a pickle with ingenuity and fortitude. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough reports social science data linking character skills like “effort, diligence, and perseverance” with success. The best way to foster these skills is to teach children that we all face obstacles, and that both intelligence and creativity can be enhanced through hard work. As Bettelheim writes, “Amoral fairy tale[ characters such] . . . as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery . . . giv[e children] the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life.” This hope is what promotes the effort and tenacity required to successfully venture out into the world.
How to make the most of fairy tales
These general benefits leave quite a few loose ends. At what age should we start? With which version? Do we allow kids to stew over the story independently or add our own thoughts?
According to Bettelheim, “[E]nchantment can be experienced, only from the story in its original form. . . . The simplified and bowlderized fairy tale loses all value.” Yet, as Tatar notes, there is “cultural dissonance generated by telling nineteenth-century stories”—written for children growing up with high mortality rates, and thus already surrounded by death—to today’s kids. She also highlights the sexism inherent in the originals: “Curiosity and disobedience, along with a variety of other vices, are seen as the besetting sins of both children and women.” Then again, Disneyfication usually only exacerbates the problem. For example, in “American rewritings of ‘Snow White,’” Tatar points out, two types of femininity are contrasted: a power-obsessed, “forbiddingly cold woman [and] . . . a girl who makes her dreams come true through her flirtatious good looks and her effortless ability to keep a house clean.”
Fortunately, “each [generation] creates its own folklore through rereadings as well as retellings,” notes Tatar. “The places where we wince, cower, laugh, comment, whisper, [or] shriek . . . determine the way the child perceives the story.” We should therefore read the original tales conscientiously, and in tandem with explicit discussion about social mores and violence. Zipes agrees that sanitizing the tales is misguided, even hypocritical. By instead acknowledging the physical and social brutality of the stories, we can teach our children to think critically about their world.
As for age, luckily there are hundreds of well-known tales with varying degrees of complexity and explicitness. In “Choosing Fairy Tales for Different Ages,” Joan Almon provides a handy guide:
Young threes: Simple nature stories such as “Sweet Porridge”Older threes: Sequential, repetitive tales such as “The Turnip”Fours and young fives: Stories that are “slightly more complex” but cheerful overall, such as “Three Little Pigs,” “Billy Goats Gruff,” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves”Fives and sixes: More challenging tales that still “do not weigh too heavily on the soul of the individual” such as “Frog Prince,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Hansel and Gretel”Older sixes: “Tales in which characters have a personal experience of suffering or sorrow,” such as “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel”
Be brave of heart
In The Genius of Natural Childhood, Sally Goddard Blythe writes, “If as parents or society we seek to protect children from all unpleasant events, we do not equip them to deal with the real world.” Having internalized this message, I eschewed helicopter parenting in favor of inculcating independence when exploring the city streets. And yet, I overprotected my kids in the safety of their own bedroom.
Seeking untold emotional and developmental riches, I recently tackled my own fears and stepped into the mean world of fairy tales. After just a few readings, my kindergartener sees herself in “Little Red Riding Hood,” my 3-year-old relates to Jack, and I . . . well, with a new baby in the house, I deeply identify with all the sleepy characters.