Okay, I have a confession to make. When I was in college, I hated fairy tales. Yup, hated them. That’s what I would have told you, anyway. In fact, I remember taking a class in persuasion, and my semester-long project was to get the class to agree with my proposal that fairy tales were harmful for girls. You see, I thought that (and I cited plenty of scholarly sources) fairy tales were too often about weak girls being victimized in some way, often by (ugly) older women in addition to everyone else. I thought that it just wasn’t a good message to send to children in general, but especially girls. Even though I remember reading them myself as a child (maybe 9 years old?), as a college student I also found the level of violence in the old fairy tales distasteful and couldn’t imagine reading them to my children (if I ever had any). I viewed them as relics of a crueler time and assured myself that our society had most certainly evolved past them.
So, in modern times Disney and others have attempted to make the tales more palatable to us. These sanitized versions of the old fairy tales led a resurgence in their popularity. Sort of. But I’ll bet that many of the little girls wearing Cinderella dresses have no idea what really happened to her wicked stepsisters at the end. (I include my own daughter in this, by the way! I have, wisely or unwisely, shielded her from the real stories. My only defense to this, if it indeed needs defending, is that I have the undeniable urge, which I assume is common in most parents, to protect her from unnecessary exposure to unpleasantness.)
I am again confronting this issue because of something I read in the fabulous book “Reading Magic” by my new hero Mem Fox. (Go ahead and place your holds, I’ll be done soon!) My BFF Mem (hehe) relates that, when someone asked Albert Einstein how to make her son more intelligent, he earnestly told her to “Read him fairy stories.” Fox goes on:
“Fairy stories require the mind to be attentive to detail, to be highly active in problem solving, to roll through tunnels of prediction and meaning making, and to tumble down hills of emotion and run back up again. Fairy tales often appear collected in fat books with few illustrations. This lack of pictures makes fairy tales particularly special because children’s imaginations have to work a little harder when they hear the stories. As children listen spellbound to the words, they have to use their brains actively to create their own pictures, thereby developing the all-important imagination that Einstein was so keen to promote.” p. 138-9.
Fox insists that it’s okay to read the scary old fairy tales to kids, as long as they “feel deliciously safe with us while the story is being read.” It is cathartic for us to read about other people’s difficulties, and thereby try to learn from what they have been through. The distance of being the reader makes us feel safe as we navigate troubled waters and contemplate difficult issues. We know this is true for ourselves as adults, so should it be any different for children? Are we doing them any favors by not reading fairy tales at all, or by reading only the sanitized versions?
****NOTE: Parents, I need to be clear on something. I am NOT saying to go out and read the scariest fairy tales you can find to your 2 year old who is afraid of his or her own shadow. As the parent, you know your child better than anyone, and if you think your child isn’t ready, he or she probably isn’t. My purpose in writing this post is to open a dialogue about the issue, because I don’t think there are any absolute answers.
So I want to know from you–do you read fairy tales to your children? Why or why not? What do you think is an appropriate age to introduce them? Do you have a particular favorite book or tale? Do you agree or disagree with Mem Fox’s assertions?