Once upon a time, people began telling stories around the fire. The stories were as deep and dark as the woods where talking animals, elves, fairies and other enchanting characters lived. As time passed, the stories were collected and written down. Many were made into movies. And then parents began asking: what is it about fairy tales? Aren’t they too violent and scary for impressionable children? And are Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella good role models? But that was far from the end. No matter how politically incorrect stories about evil stepmothers, damsels in distress, and cannibalistic old women may be, fairy tales are here to stay.
And that’s a good thing, say the experts. “They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” says Maria Tatar, a professor at Harvard College who writes about, and teaches classes on, fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.”
Indeed, as scary as many of these stories sound to parents, many scholars view them as helping children work through anxieties they can’t yet express. The famous writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters – many of them children themselves – demonstrate pluck, and the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.
But, will the gruff world represented in many fairy tales be too scary for your little one? “A parent is usually the best judge of her or his child's ability to handle the stories, “ says Patte Kelley, Head of the Children’s Department at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. “For instance, my sons had no problems with written folktales or fantasy movies because they knew they were not real. I also recommend that parents read the stories themselves before reading them aloud to their child. Some familiar titles have elements missing in the Disney versions most people are familiar with.”
Don’t worry that your child is missing out if you decide to read her a modern version of Cinderella rather than the original version, in which birds peck out the eyes of the cruel stepsisters. Many updated versions of classic stories, like The Little Mermaid, have kept the conflict of older versions while featuring bold and adventurous heroines. Seek out versions that appeal to you, and modify them in the telling. For example, Tatar says you could twist Sleeping Beauty into Sleeping Handsome or talk about what it means to wait. “We should keep changing them,” she says. “These were told around the fireside. They were never meant to be set in stone.”
Of course, the real test for any children’s story isn’t whether it bolsters psychological resilience or has roots in pre-Christian Europe; it’s whether it enthralls its audience and makes them beg for more. Most fairy tales cast spells on kids, engaging their imaginations in ways modern authors can only dream of. So get out your storybook, and prepare to read happily every after.