Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Fairy Tales Shock and May Deceive—Are They Still Relevant?

Bedtime stories may include reading fairy tales, which some believe helps children develop a moral compass, but there’s more to them than we realize.

Children, we are told, should be protected from things that would be inappropriate or frightening for them, and yet we read them, often at bedtime, as fairytales. Adults with children also had classic fairytales read to them. They want to pass this on to their children, believing that these tales that weave fantasies and have magic for little minds will also bring a sense of morality, empathy, and happiness to the children. Nothing could be further from the truth because the original fairytales are grim, often grizzly stories embodying the worst human behavior. Try to get a copy of the original Italian Sleeping Beauty, if you want to understand how much the story has changed. What do I mean?

For instance, let’s consider Jack and the Beanstalk. We believe Jack is a loving child who wants to do whatever he can for his poor mother and sets out to sell whatever he can, which is the family cow. What does Jack get for the cow? A couple of beans, and that sounds like Jack has been scammed.

But Jack, in his optimistic persistence, lets the beans grow (reality is put on hold here because beanstalks don’t grow overnight) into a giant beanstalk that Jack naively climbs to steal from the giant who lives there. Do we wish to teach our children how to be better thieves or how to have empathy for poor families? Jack and the Beanstalk is only one story, and it’s not the worst.

What about the Little Red Riding Hood, who goes with her basket of goodies to visit her grandmother’s house and is stopped by a wolf? It’s a pretty grim tale that includes deception by the wolf, the wolf swallowing the grandmother and assuming her place, and, finally, the hero, in the form of a woodsman, coming to save the children from the wolf. Of course, how he saves the grandmother can be unnerving, and perhaps that ending should have been changed.

Hansel and Gretel are even worse when their parents (the stepmother is the instigator here) abandon them in the woods, and a wicked old woman puts Hansel in a cage to fatten him up for eating. Why were they abandoned? Because of the family’s financial situation, the husband gave in to her request to remove his children from his previous wife. It’s not a pleasant tale to tell children; they might fear being abandoned and left to survive in a forest of evil old women.

There are, of course, lots of different ways to look at fairy tales. Still, it’s fun to look at the clear and not-so-clear lessons that these old stories teach kids. Fairytales were even the topic of a famous psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote “The Uses of Enchantment,” a detailed dissection of fairytales and their underlying messages to children.

These days, bedtime stories can teach morals and useful life lessons, while many old fairy tales have scary or violent themes. These are some good ideas and lessons that children can learn from modern children’s books:

1. Understanding and kindness: Stories can teach children the importance of caring about others and understanding how they feel and what their lives are like compared to the child’s life.

Children can learn to accept and value people from different backgrounds through stories worldwide where cultural differences are outlined, and belief systems vary. These stories can also help them appreciate how unique each person is and value that, too. In the US, the native peoples have stories that children should read to help them realize how we are connected to nature and must protect it.

3. Strength and determination: Adults, whether in fairytales or life, are children’s first teachers. They can learn to be strong by modeling the behavior of adults and those who don’t give up when things get tough. The thread of persistence is clear in many fairytales.

4. Being honest and doing the right thing: Stories can show how important it is to always do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s hardest when the right thing may present hardships for a child. Who shares their lunch with another child who has none?

5. Creativity and imagination: The wonder in these tales is that anything is possible—trees can talk, carpets can fly, and people have magical powers. Reading stories that interest kids can help them develop new ways to complete tasks and encourage them to problem-solve.

6. Eco-friendly: Stories teach kids how important it is to look after the Earth and all its living things. Even the tiniest things have a purpose and aid us in our lives. It teaches them to honor life in all its forms. Are their stories about how little insects or worms enrich our lives? Worms in the earth are essential to keeping the ground healthy for plants.

7. Giving back to the community: Stories can show how a family or group of friends can work together to help each other. How community gardens may be places of wonder and connection is another theme.

8. Self-love and confidence: Kids can learn to be as sure of themselves as characters who love and accept their flaws. They can also learn to use questioning when appropriate.

9. Working together: Stories can show why working together is beneficial and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from teamwork.

Children’s bedtime stories may contain tales of wonder and hope, resilience and goodness, and that’s probably the element that made the Harry Potter series so successful. These tales can open the gates of creativity and shape children’s views of what the future can bring if goodness rules in the face of adversity.

I recall being on a plane, and when I looked to the adjacent aisle, an older man was engrossed in reading one of the Harry Potter books. Yes, the books, written by a woman who had been on welfare in the UK, had something for kids and adults. Now, she’s a billionaire.

Truly, these are teaching stories for the world’s children to face in the future, and preparing them may be as simple as picking an appropriate bedtime book to read as they make their way into a safe and comforting slumber.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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