Fairytales and what they offer children

14th May, 2018

Love Sport Radio – Kelvin Mackenzie Show

This is a talk time radio station and so I was ready for an introductory question designed to stimulate listener’s calls. I was asked to talk about the potential harm there might be in reading fairy tales to your child. The theme for the discussion was not a new one. In my research before speaking I came across a lot of material about the well-known realist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ controversial claims on Twitter in 2014 that fairy tales are bad for you.

I’d looked at the Daily Mail Education Correspondent, Eleanor Harding’s article “Snowflake parents change fairy tales in case they upset their little darlings’ and tried to take a reasonably balanced view on the subject of these centuries old imaginary tales most parents share with their children. However, I don’t mind admitting that I am very fond of these stories, have memories of being told them when I was a child and also of telling or reading them to my own children. So there’s one point: they provide a kind of link between times old and new, a tradition and a shared family history between the generations.

Most authorities on child development and children’s literature see the benefits of fairy tales as including:

  • A journey into imaginary worlds and scenarios, which involves heroes and heroines facing seemingly impossible challenges, overcoming adversity and finding a resolution in order to ‘live happily ever after”
  • Stories involving different people, often good and bad archetypes, different places, cultures and times
  • Moral lessons on how to lead a ‘good life’ and how to be a ‘good person’
  • Social lessons about friendship, kinship, dealing with conflict and desirable aspects of character such as loyalty, honour, empathy, compassion, truthfulness and determination
  • Entertainment, fun and humour
  • Relaxation as very often the stories are told to children at bedtime
  • Benefits to language/literacy/sense of story, creativity, reasoning and problem-solving

You would think that with so many potential benefits there would be little not to like but it seems that in our information-dense, media-driven times there are many parents who have a growing sense of unease about these stories. According to the Daily Mail article a recent OnePoll.com survey commissioned by musicMagpie found that a substantial proportion of 2,000 UK parents, thought that many aspects of classic fairytales did not fit present day society’s moral and political values. For example, the idea of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ being kissed without her consent by her rescuer, the prince and the body-shaming implications in ‘The Ugly Duckling’ are questioned to the extent that a quarter of the surveyed parents actually changed the stories for their children.

My view on this is quite simple: It’s all about the starting point that fairytales are made-up stories, written almost always as a way of exploring the shadow side of human nature and behaviour. They are useful because they can prompt conversation, questions and discussion of situations and issues that our children need to know about in order to develop into moral, critical and thoughtful individuals. The problem arises, presumably when they are viewed merely as stories to be told and then not talked about, i.e. left with the child to make sense of on their own.

This rather literal perspective of the parents busily adapting fairytales in order to avoid disturbing and/or politically incorrect themes may well relate to their own issues that arise from being exposed repeatedly to masses of material about human suffering and distress by the media that they too have been left alone with. There is a commercial ethic to the old adage that bad news sells whereas good news presumably doesn’t. Maybe it is time for society as a whole to consider ways of redressing the balance and to give viewers and listeners more balanced news so that the public gains more perspective and has cause for hope much more often? As for fairytales and whether or not they benefit children, it might be useful to consider what Albert Einstein had to say about them:

“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.”

In an ideal world stories for children would be a bit like architecture, i.e. there would be the old and treasured ones, modern ones written from the perspective of the up-to-date social context and also a blend of both.  Parents would hopefully draw upon all of these and always talk about them with their children.

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