Of rainbows and unicorns – Part 2 – Do fairy tales and fantasy still have a place for children?

I have many discussions with parents about whether they should read fairy tales and stories with magical elements to their children. These parents raise a number of issues, for example:

  • Horrible things happen – Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods (by their parents) and are captured by a wicked witch – the wolf tries to trick the seven little kids left at home alone
  • Parents are often dead or absent – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Stepmothers are mean – Cinderella, Snow White
  • Sexism, especially the need for a female to be rescued by a handsome prince – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty
  • They contain “magical” creatures such as fairy godmothers (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), witches (Snow White), giants (Jack and the Beanstalk), trolls (Three Billy Goats)
  • Myth of happily ever after
  • Stereotypes – beauty is good, ugly is bad
  • The presence of magic – good magic of fairies and bad magic of witches – Sleeping Beauty; magical bean seeds and geese (Jack and the Beanstalk)
  • Bullying – Cinderella

Maria L. Hughes, writing for The Little Prickle Press sums up the concerns this way:

“many of the older tales incorporated rather dark themes devoted to death, suffering and children being murdered. But then there is also a second incorporation that has to do with later Disney movies of these fairy tales and them being too happy and can result in parents thinking their child will be deluded with ideas that the world will just work for them and things will be good.”

While I acknowledge these elements occur, I am not prepared to abandon fairy tales because of it.

While I may consider a diet of only fairy tales problematic, I think something would be lacking if a child was refused access to the richness of their stories and tradition. Like most fiction, they offer an avenue for escapism. In addition, the stories can be used as a tool for initiating non-threatening discussions of the issues listed above.

In Once upon an if The Storythinking Handbook Peter Worley writes

“Stories are just one way that we are able to sharpen our own character in order to prepare for the narratives we will one day find ourselves in as the story of our life unfolds before, around and within us.” 

Following a comment by Richard Dawkins, a recent discussion on The Guardian considered whether fairy tales are harmful to children. So far the consensus seems to be that they are not.

Albert Einstein was a supporter of fairy tales and is often attributed with the following quote, discussed in more detail by Maria Popova on brain pickings.

Anne Fine, in the Foreword to Once upon an if The Storythinking Handbook explains

“In an increasingly complicated world, we more than ever want our children to be able to think with clarity, rather than lead lives hampered or derailed by all those false assumptions and unexamined prejudices that seem as easily inherited as freckles or brown eyes.

How can we go about teaching them to peel back the surface of their first thoughts on a matter, or even their strongest beliefs, and look at them with more care? . . . fiction has always fostered the moral, intellectual and emotional development of the growing child. (‘Should she have done that?’ ‘Would I?’ ‘What else could have been done?’ ‘How would it feel?’) Good stories highlight the sheer complexity of things. They furnish a far greater understanding of the world and everyone in it. For most of us, fiction has always been the earliest – and many would argue the best – instrument we have had for ethical enquiry.”

Think of the ethical inquiry that could occur when discussing Goldilocks and her break and enter, Jack’s theft of the giant’s belongings and the constant portrayal of the wolf as the bad guy; just to get you started.

Melissa Taylor on her blog “Imagination Soup” suggests the following 8 reasons why fairy tales are essential to childhood:

  1. Show kids how to handle problems
  2. Build emotional resilience
  3. Give us a common language (Cultural literacy and canon)
  4. Cross cultural boundaries
  5. Teach story
  6. Develop imagination
  7. Can be used to teach critical thinking skills
  8. Teach lessons

In a previous post about fairy tales, written in response to a flash fiction challenge set by Charli Mills  I mentioned that I was not a keen reader of adult fantasy. In a comment on that post Charli mentioned that she knew others with similar feelings. I will leave you with a link to another article on brain pickings in which Maria Popova discusses the thoughts of one of the masters of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy Tales, Language, the Psychology of Fantasy, and Why There’s No Such Thing as Writing “For Children”

What do you think? Should we read fairy tales to children? Why/why not?

What are your favourite fairy tales and what lessons have you learned from them?

Please share your thoughts.

22 thoughts on “Of rainbows and unicorns – Part 2 – Do fairy tales and fantasy still have a place for children?

  1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Great post Norah. I have no issue with children being told fairy tales. I may be wrong but at the age children are told fairy tales it is at an age prior to when they themselves start reading. The tales are either read to the child or told as a bedtime story. As such an adult is there to help with any issues that may be brought up as a result of the stories and should be able to also see the effect that it is having on the child and moderate it if necessary. I don’t know many young children but my nephews see fairy tales as rather tame girly stories and much prefer their super heroes and warring in outer space. This worries me much more than the fairy tales.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Irene, I appreciate your comments. I think your point about children being introduced to fairy tales in the company of an adult is a very valid and important one. It’s interesting that your nephews consider the tales to be girly. I don’t think they have come across some of the original German stories as described by Carol Hedges in her comment. That’s probably not such a bad thing.

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      1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        They live in Switzerland so I’m not really sure which ones they have been subjected to but I imagine all the ones that my brother and I had as kids (and none which left me with any fear). That is probably another point – you are limited by your imagination when reading and your imagination will usually not take you places that you can’t handle which is quite different to watching television. I would say watching the news on the television is far more detrimental to children’s mental well-being than any fairy tale could ever be.

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        1. Norah Post author

          I’m with you 100% on the news. There’s never anything good there. That makes me think of a Daniel Goleman quote I read yesterday on this site http://goo.gl/7qBnEn I can’t see how to link to the quote specifically so I’ll pop it in here. Though it is quite long, it is very interesting.
          “The argument has long been made that we humans are by nature compassionate and empathic despite the occasional streak of meanness, but torrents of bad news throughout history have contradicted that claim, and little sound science has backed it. But try this thought experiment. Imagine the number of opportunities people around the world today might have to commit an antisocial act, from rape or murder to simple rudeness and dishonesty. Make that number the bottom of a fraction. Now for the top value you put the number of such antisocial acts that will actually occur today.

          That ratio of potential to enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year. And if for the top value you put the number of benevolent acts performed in a given day, the ratio of kindness to cruelty will always be positive. (The news, however, comes to us as though that ratio was reversed.)

          Harvard’s Jerome Kagan proposes this mental exercise to make a simple point about human nature: the sum total of goodness vastly outweighs that of meanness. ‘Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy, and to be rude, aggressive or violent,’ Kagan notes, ‘they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially toward those in need.’ This inbuilt ethical sense, he adds, ‘is a biological feature of our species.”
          ― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
          What do you think?

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  2. Hope (@NannyShecando)

    I’m only just getting to this post now. Trawling through the rest of the comments, I agree completely. I think as with anything, a balance is needed. I think ultimately the key to handling the outcomes raised in the more sombre fairytales lies within the role of parenting and the way in which a dialogue occurs after reading.

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  3. Terry Tyler

    I think all these oh-so-serious people who say they should not be allowed are perhaps over-thinking it. I would also like to add that our generation grew up on them and, as a rule, we were better behaved and educated than many of today’s children.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Terry, Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts. It is interesting isn’t it that one generation feels they must change the actions of the one before? I do understand that parents want to protect their children from harm, but maybe there are worse things out there than fairy tales in a book. Carol commented on the “fairy tales” on the internet. She may have something there!

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  4. Carol Hedges

    As someone who was raised by German parents on ”Strewel Peter” just about the most horrific and violent book of folk tales you can imagine, I think the type of stories UK kids read are quite anodyne in comparison!! And as you point out, it teaches kids that there are parents/people who don’t care and aren’t trustworthy, but on the whole, the baddies get their come-uppance in the end.. It isn’t the tales themselves, it’s the act of sharing them in a loving atmosphere with a parent. You can’t shelter kids any more….in a few years time, they will be on the internet…which has much much darker ”fairytales” ….

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Carol, Thanks for popping by and sharing your thoughts. I haven’t heard the “Strewel Peter” stories and I’m not sure that I would like them! The original tales collected by the Grimm brothers were very grim indeed. I do know what you mean about the blandness of some of today’s stories; and your warning about the internet – so true. It is not so easy to protect children from these dark tales today.

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  5. Teagan Kearney

    Yes, a great post on a topical subject, Norah, and very enjoyable reading. I’m with you and Einstein. Many think fairy tales are full of unfavourable stereotypes. But fairy tales are part of a greater body of folktales and contain archetypal situations and characters. I also think children receive the ‘pictures’ transmitted through hearing these stories in a different way to adults. And when we read them to children, we’re passing them on in the way they’ve been told – orally.
    One of my favourite fairy stories is ‘The King of Ireland’s Son’ – it goes on forever!
    (Great comments, too!)

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your kind words, Teagan. I’m so pleased you enjoyed that article and joined in the discussion. Some interesting ideas on this topic have been shared and extended my thinking, which is always good. I’m interested in your suggestion that children receive the ‘pictures’ differently from the way adults do and wonder what has prompted this remark. It sounds like an idea worth exploring further. I don’t know The King of Ireland’s Son. Should I check it out?

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  6. Diane

    What a well-researched and interesting post, Norah. I remember taking a Women’s Studies class in university (in the 80’s) where we discussed the sexism and stereotypes in many popular fairy tales. Left unchallenged, they do send the wrong message but, like you said, books can also “be used as a tool for initiating non-threatening discussions of the issues.” Children are bombarded by messages from society every day, so why not use fairy tales to initiate discussions that will teach children to question and think for themselves (rather than blindly accepting what society tells them to believe). Plus, they connect to a child’s sense of imagination and wonder, which I think is always a good thing. PS: As an assignment for my class, I wrote a feminist fairy tale that turned the stereotypes upside down (one that earned me an A++ and my first “reading”) — thanks for writing a post that reminded me of this forgotten first foray into writing 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Diane. I appreciate the way you have extended the discussion. As you know, I wholeheartedly agree with the need for children to question and think for themselves. I would love to read your feminist fairy tale if you are willing to share. I’m pleased that the post brought back memories of the proud event. I’m not sure what you mean by “reading” though. Did you read the story aloud to your peers?

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  7. Annecdotist

    Yeah, fairytales are violent and full of improbables – but that’s partly why they are so useful to children. Young minds are already beset by crude stereotypes of heroes, rescuers and villains – they are not yet sophisticated enough to explore the grey areas – and these stories reflect these anxieties and help with the process of working through. And they are especially useful if parents and teachers use them as the basis of discussion.
    Samantha Ellis in How to Be a Heroine has a chapter on fairytales, including the somewhat gruesome Little Mermaid: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal/how-to-be-a-heroine
    Great post, as ever, Norah

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for extending the discussion, Anne. It was great to receive the prompt to revisit your post. I am interested now to read that chapter in (and maybe the rest of) Samantha Ellis’s book. I need to find out why the Little Mermaid was somewhat gruesome! I’m pleased you raised the issue of ‘grey areas’ for they can be very difficult to navigate, even for sophisticated thinkers. If all decisions started out in murky waters it could be very confusing for the uninitiated.

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  8. TanGental

    This really had me thinking and made me ask the question : what is the difference between fantasy and a fairy tale. After half an hour rummaging (bed is such a good place to research and God bless the iPad) I concluded that fairy tales are fantasy but a specific sort. They are old, they come from an oral tradition of story telling and not usually or necessarily the mind of one author and collect shared cultural experiences and values. It is difficult, with this definition to have a modern fairy tale, but rather a children’s story or an adult fantasy with or without magical and/or mythical creatures.
    As such I see no more problem with fairy tales than I do Chaucer or Shakespeare or indeed a lot of human history which needs explaining to children. I do have a problem with a diet of sugar coated rubbish be it a modern Japanese cartoon or Hannah Montana or whatever is is or where it is from. Balance and explanation seem to me part of parenting and educating children through literature and film. As with Charlie and her campfire (I so want to be there with her; I bet it was brilliant) use of fairy tales or good fantasy can be a wonderful eye opening prompt for children. And I will bow to no one in my gratitude to JK Rowling and Harry as she/he were the sole and exclusive reason my children are not fazed by large books and reading for pleasure.
    Thank you for giving me a chance to release that thought.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m pleased the post got you thinking, Geoff and that you shared some of those thoughts with us, clarifying some of the similarities and differences between fairy tales and fantasy. I agree that balance and explanation are good part of parenting and educating children. I understand your gratitude to JK Rowling and Harry. Whatever can turn children on to reading is a winner with me. Each child needs their own ‘switch’. I’m glad I could oblige in providing the opportunity for you to voice these opinions. It’s always great to hear what others think, especially when it extends my own thinking. 🙂

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  9. Bec

    Very interesting article, Nor! As you know, I object to many fairy tales for the reasons you describe. But I am not opposed to fairy tales as a rule! Perhaps it is about finding those which reflect the qualities we wish to foster in children. For example, I love the film Ponyo (also, as you know!) which thoroughly is fantasy. But there is not the undercurrent of sexism, problems aren’t solved with violence, ugly people or predator animals (e.g. sharks) aren’t framed as the ‘baddies’, and there are no double meaning jokes hidden in there to entertain adults. I feel it could be the perfect story for children. However, I will vehemently object to Snow White et al., and I loathe the vapid, idiotic, simplistic and violence-filled modern fairy tales (though perhaps they are just children’s fiction, not fairy tales) such as Madagascar and the other merchandise-focused children’s films. Do you think these count as fairy tales? Or are they something different? PS here’s the preview for the English version of Ponyo – because it’s cute! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bskgNOXbdiE

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Bec for another interesting and challenging comment. Ponyo does look like a very interesting story. I enjoyed the trailer – might have to watch the full-length movie sometime. I’m not sure about Madagascar. I think I may have seen it years ago but can’t recall the plot. I am not keen on the commercialism with merchandise available for every movie. Takes me back to your comment about first order and second order preferences on my post about the marshmallow experiment http://goo.gl/3Pwg9N.

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  10. Charli Mills (@Charli_Mills)

    Yes, I’m in the read-fairy-tales-to children camp. What a sterile world without them. I understand wanting to keep children safe, unbiased and protected from exposure to traits we find undesirable, but we can’t micro-manage our children. It doesn’t work for adults (employees) either. I think what Einstein means about equating intelligence to reading children fairy-tales is letting them be free to imagine–encourage them to imagine. I raised three children on fairy-tales and they are critical-thinking, compassionate and self-sufficient adults. With imagination…:-)

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Charli. I agree wholeheartedly. Congratulations on raising three critical-thinking, compassionate and self-sufficient adults. No greater joy does parenting bring! 🙂

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