Why Children Should Read Fairy Tales
February 26, 2019
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful miserable girl called Cinderella, who lived with her cruel stepmother and mean stepsisters. They denied her every pleasure in life, confining her to the walls of her house, busying her with the never-ending drudgery of household tasks and chores. Patient, sweet-natured, yet hapless, Cinderella at last found redemption in the love of a handsome prince who couldn’t take his eyes off her from the moment he saw her. Not to mention, it was the magic of a fairy godmother that assisted her with the make-over that she needed in order to make it to the prince’s palace. Plus, her small, delicate feet were the reason she was rediscovered by the prince. Once found, the two married and they lived happily ever after!
Well-known and timeless, this fairy tale from a long time ago is controversial. An obviously feminist argument would be that it’s sexist. I wouldn’t wholly disagree. Having said that, here I am quite sincerely espousing the importance of reading fairy tales to children. And why’s that, you may ask.
Today, fairy tales are criticised for a variety of reasons. Their narrative is faulted for being sexist, the subject-matter’s (princesses, princes…) relevance is questioned, and there’s scepticism around the morals/ learnings from these tales. These are fair criticisms. Nonetheless, before we write off this prolific body of children’s literature, let’s take a moment to evaluate these accusations by contextually analysing fairy tales themselves. Fairy tales like any story ought to be interpreted not literally but contextually, within their socio-political and historical milieu. Once this is done, the merit in reading fairy tales to children becomes apparent.
‘twas a different time
Ever wondered why fairy tales almost always begin with “Once upon a time….”? Because these were tales from a long time ago. Given this, I personally feel that fairy tales do a great job of contextually situating themselves within a certain time period, upfront. As modern-day readers of fairy tales, it’s our job to understand and accept this fact, before we dismiss fairy tales, or criticise them by blindly comparing them to our modern-day realities.
Times and situations about six centuries ago, when fairy tales were actively collected and archived were different from what they are today. For starters, those were feudal times when women, regardless of their socio-economic status, were groomed for marriage. So, if we look at Cinderella’s reality, it’s only logical that her redemption had to be brought upon by a man. And what better fairy tale ending than to have a handsome prince be her knight in shining armour! In a similar vein, you could argue that fairy tales are all about imposing castles, handsome princes and beautiful princesses, and these are all things of the past. How’re these relevant to us today? Again, putting things in perspective, established monarchies were a reality back then. That’s plausibly why these were prominent fairy tale subjects.
Fairy tales offer a glimpse into the past. They were never supposed to represent the realities of the 20th Century. For me, this in and of itself is a wonderful reason to read fairy tales. In my humble opinion, this rich body of children’s literature is fraught with amazing opportunities for varied adult-child conversations from a historical and sociological perspective.
An evil stepmother? And witches?
What is common between Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Baba Yaga, Hansel And Gretel, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty? You guessed it! These fairy tales either have an evil step-mother or a witch, or both. Do we really want our children to see women in such poor light?
I’ve often wondered about this myself and found the frequency of terribly portrayed women in the fairy tale narrative rather disturbing. However, again, it’s important to analyse this common theme of witches and stepmothers within context. As established, the fairy tale milieu was patriarchal. Men called the shots in almost every sphere of life: government, economic and even in the literary world. Maybe that’s why you’d be hard pressed to find recurring evil stepdads or wicked sorcerers.
Centuries ago, high maternal mortality rates made step-mothers common. Also, they inherited children for whom they may not have had the emotional attachment like a birth mother might. Further, a stepmother’s desire for her own biological child(ren) to claim wealth and status seems like a compelling reason for her to be resentful towards her stepchildren. Since fairy tales were chiefly based on these sad realities of their time, unfortunately uncaring, manipulative, stepmothers were obvious fairy tale subjects.
Coming to witches. Patriarchal prerogative also set definitions of the role and image of women. Well into the Renaissance period, women in almost every art form, printed or painted, were portrayed either as being hapless, as mothers, as queens, or as beautiful princesses. I deduce this purely by observing the media of the time. There was a high emphasis on femininity (remember Princess And The Pea?). A stereotypical fairy tale woman had a perfect life. She was beautiful, with a fulfilled married life, cherubic, well-dressed children. She was polite, soft-spoken, patient, understanding, and fundamentally content.
Join the dots, and it seems like any woman who didn’t fit the mould was an anomaly. She posed uncomfortable questions about blindly accepted gender stereotypes and social norms. She was a danger to the happy societal equilibrium and was likely deemed an outcast. Thereby, creating an aura of mystery and evil around her. Just like witches. This is pure conjecture on my part, but feasible.
Fairy tales indeed have disturbing female depictions. But that still shouldn’t deter us from reading them to our children. At a minimum, it’s delightful that fairy tales today can help little girls appreciate their reality when compared to the unfortunate women of “Once Upon A Time…” And boys can fathom the perils of a sexist society. Exposing children to witches and stepmothers of lore could well create a fertile pipeline of conversations between adults and children today. Topics could be diverse, spanning anywhere from gender stereotypes and social structures to a critical media evaluation (framing, priming, etc.) of the time.
The Moral of the Story is…
Stories within the extensive body of children’s literature usually do, and honestly, should have some teaching to offer. The very morals or teaching of fairy tales have been questioned. And rightly so!
Let’s take the example of Cinderella. It may not be audaciously presumptuous to hypothesise that a little girl reading Cinderella’s story is likely to believe that if she, like Cinderella, is accepting of her situation, patient, beautiful (both inward and outward), she too will have a fairy tale ending like Cinderella. She’s also likely to attribute her future liberation or betterment to a man. He, who will also likely be the man of her dreams. For girls from once upon a time, these were stories filled with hope.
Critically interpreting this immortal piece of children’s literature within the context of its time, these morals were perhaps appropriate for girls of yesterday. But not for those today. And that’s precisely why today children, both boys and girls, must read Cinderella’s story. As an avid reader of fairy tales to my boys, I’ve found they offer some important learnings for children in modern times. For instance, Cinderella’s story can help provide insights into medieval society and how it differs from our world today.
Curiosity and dialogue
Fairy tales are provocative. They’re Eurocentric, chauvinistic, male-dominated stories. They are undeniably twisted, and their relevance in contemporary times has been questioned. But again, looking at it all contextually, the original audience for fairy tales were adults and not children. Consequently, the fairy tale cast of characters remains intriguingly complex.
So, this brings me to my original question: Why fairy tales? The answer simply lies in what I call ‘the fairy tale paradox’. Children should be exposed to fairy tales precisely because they are contentious and multifaceted. As a result, they spark curiosity among children and can help facilitate the most wonderful conversations.
A deep, meaningful exchange of ideas and discussion could address simple questions like “Is this true?”, to learning about monarchies and historic battles, speculating about magic and witches, or understanding social structures, gender stereotypes form those days compared to our lives today. By recounting fairy tales contextually to our children, we offer them the rudimentary knowledge of critically interpreting any form of communication they might be exposed to today or in the future. Be it in the form of news, books, or even social media.
Most significantly, fairy tales instil in children the power of imagination. A sense of wonder thanks to magic, spells, curses, fairies, witches, elves, pixies, gnomes, talking animals, mermaids and other mystical creatures. Fairy tales can take children to enchanted lands where anything is possible. A land where fantasy becomes real. Cognitively, they take our minds to places that were unimaginable. Thereby inspiring us to think creatively. To quote none other than Einstein, who himself was a huge proponent of imagination: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales”.
And that’s a fairy tale ending to my rant!
Do you think children should fairy tales? Why? Share with us in the comments below.
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan
Nidhi is an avid traveller and reader. A sushi and yoga lover. Her 'pre-kids' life was spent in the ever-dynamic field of Communication Sciences. After which, she chose to be a fulltime mom. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her. She’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.
Read her articles here.