We were reflecting the other day on the fairies that used to frequent our house when the children were little. They have happy memories of Slumberbell (the night time fairy who would encourage the children to stay in their beds and sleep tight) or the more conventional Tooth Fairy (who was absolutely hopeless and always late but nevertheless always provided a degree of excitement when their milk teeth fell out) or even the Christmas Tree Fairy (who visited late at night when four children were very small, decorating the tree beautifully to save them all knocking it over and fighting over who would put the star on top)!!! Each of these and many more ignited their imagination, provided a platform for some lessons in behaviour and inspired them through their childhood years. But exactly what place should fairy tale and folklore play in our children’s lives as they grow up and how constructive or detrimental is it to their development in the longer term?
Fairy tales are as old as the years and children have been told them through time. However, nowadays many are starting to question the veracity of telling these stories to children. Hidden beneath the surface of these mythical tales are often violent, scary stories, the stuff of nightmares, with unusual and possibly inappropriate messages that just don’t hold water today. For example, the gender specifics in fairy tales often portray women in a demeaning light. Take Snow White for instance and her capacity as the dwarfs’ housekeeper – staying at home to wash and cook for seven men. Or even Goldilocks and the Three Bears with their “big” chair for Daddy bear, their “medium” chair for Mummy bear etc differentiating and discriminating between the sexes. Or take Little Red Riding Hood and the murderous scenes of the wolf “gobbling” Grandma up! Is this really the sort of tale that we want to tell our small children. Or even consider Sleeping Beauty waiting a hundred years for her prince to come and rescue her. Women’s role in modern society is hopefully a far cry from these illustrations whereby they should have an equal voice with men and be able and capable of taking the same journey and fighting the same battles and so it has been suggested that by telling children such tales can influence negatively their views of women, affect their self-image and remove them from reality.
However, without a doubt fairy tales are the stuff of imagination. They can promote creative thinking and differentiate between right and wrong. Consider Snow White again how she triumphs and the evil Queen is no more or Cinderella how good overcomes evil as Cinderella goes on to have a better life. They take children to a fantasy world where they can escape and they are part of the rich tapestry and heritage that has gone before; a place away from the mundane. They open their eyes to what can be, to aspiration and the hope of better things to come and provide a means of sharing fears, caution and values – some good and some less so. These are all the constructive elements of sharing such tales. They have historically been passed down by word of mouth and so illustration has been drawn from the imagination – the imagination drawing on other experiences and influences. So maybe it is not the content of the fairytale that causes problems but more so the way in which it is relayed or told and the other environmental factors that a child is exposed to that have a propensity to be detrimental.
There are therefore both bad and good reasons for sharing or not sharing fairy tales with children but the key is for stories to be read before sharing to determine how suitable they are. For sure childhood can be a scary place for children but that cannot all be attributed to fairy tales and folklore alone but to a multitude of factors. The research to date has identified that fairy tales by themselves probably will not increase aggression although exposure to such tales can inhibit the liberation and self-image particularly of girls. But critically, it is the environment in which these tales are told that will alter a child’s perception; the other ideas and messages that are imbued as they live their daily lives. The saliency of this therefore means that children need an all rounded experience with fairy tales being mixed with other stories and essentially a childhood experience that informs and inspires. They need to be helped to differentiate between the fantasy world and the realistic expectations of life and to see the world from many different platforms and perspectives. This then will teach our children and give them a tool kit for life drawing on a multitude of factors that are good and healthy and children will be able to enjoy the cultural and traditional experiences that fairy tales provide without becoming defined by them.