Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children?”. . .

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