Are Fairy Tales for Children?

ASSIGNMENT: This week’s blog post will be your final paper. For this paper, you will address the question of “are fairy tales for children?” You will take a position (yes or no) on this issue, and defend this position in a developed paper. You are expected to use MULTIPLE outside resources, cited appropriately. You should also draw upon material from the entire course. Be sure to create a logical, well-supported argument. This paper should be a minimum of 1500 words.

Although we tend to think of fairy tales as being specifically for children, many of these tales have content that we do not consider to be appropriate for young audiences. Themes of violence (e.g., Blue Beard), sex (e.g., Little Red Riding Hood), cannibalism (e.g., Snow White), and many more can be found in these stories. Given that such R-rated topics are present, some argue that fairy tales should be reserved for a more mature audience, if they are told at all. Despite this sentiment, fairy tales can be a beneficial tool for teaching children about the wickedness of the world. Fairy tales can provide children with a “safe space” from which to process these sometimes distasteful truths. Additionally, the nature of fairy tales allows for making age-appropriate adaptations so that these classic tales can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

A recent study conducted in Great Britain to coincide with the debut of the U.S. television show “Grimm” shows that many parents refuse to read fairy tales to their young children for many reasons. These range from parents’ expectations of discomfort in explaining particular aspects of the fairy tales to their young children, to fears that children would be too frightened by the content, as well as concerns regarding the political correctness of the portrayals of characters in these classic tales (The Telegraph, 2012). Many of these criticisms are not new, and they are not restricted to the fairy tale genre. The Committee on Public Education of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2001) has recognized the potential negative impact of media violence on children’s and adolescent’s health and safety. Social psychologists have long recognized the link between viewing television violence and aggressive behavior in children (Bandura, 1976). It is not surprising, then, that in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ position paper,  they identify “…television, movies, music, and video games,” as having potential negative effects,  but they do not identify written materials, such as fairy tales, as being potentially dangerous to children’s development. This may be because fairy tales allow children to use their own imaginations, and it is much easier to control the level of detail in our imaginations than it is to control images set in front of us.

Fairy tales have also been criticized for providing an unrealistic feminine standard of beauty (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003), sexism (Henneberg, 2010), anti-Semitism (Tartar, 2003), and many other discriminatory attitudes. Parents are reluctant to read fairy tales to their children for fear of these ideals being promoted. Most parents do want the best for their children, including having them grow without developing attitudes or behaviors which are deemed to be inappropriate. The parents who criticize fairy tales as being inappropriate for children are likely operating from a position of wanting to give their children all possible advantages, and wanting to raise them to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted adults.

Despite these criticisms of the fairy tale tradition, fairy tales serve important purposes in the life of a child. One of the most important functions of fairy tales presenting mature themes is that this makes clear to children that some aspects of life are ugly or undesirable. Although it seems admirable that parents want to protect their children from the harsh realities of life, doing so may actually undermine the children’s development. For instance, parents who are overprotective tend to have children who exhibit more anxiety and internalizing behaviors (Kiel & Maack, 2012). This relationship seems to extend into early adulthood in the form of social anxiety (Spokas & Heimberg, 2009). By not exposing children to the realities of violence, sex, and other adult issues, parents may actually be hindering their child’s ability to cope, and ultimately, their transition into adulthood.

Psychologists have long recognized that fairy tales are an important element in children’s development (von Franz, 1996). Indeed, various theorists have proposed that fairy tales provide children with a safe way of processing psychological information about the world and about themselves (Cashdan, 1999). Cashdan (1999) proposes that children can resolve their inner conflicts through externalizing them into fairy tale stories.  Crain, D’Alessio, McIntyre, and Smoke (1983) discovered that children who had recently heard a fairy tale engaged in more thoughtful and reflective play, as opposed to those who heard a trivial story or who had watched a cartoon. Additionally, research examining preschoolers who acted out fairy tales found that these children developed greater capacities for delayed gratification than those who simply listened to a story, discussed a story, or engaged in a non-fairy tale related task (Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977). As parents, we should want to encourage thoughtfulness and development of our children, as well as the ability to delay gratification. Therefore, we should be motivated to provide our children the safe space and tools to enable this growth. This bolsters an argument for presenting children with fairy tale stories.

However, in order to create a truly safe space for such development to occur, fairy tales should be age appropriate. Fortunately, the history of fairy tales allows for age appropriate adjustments to be made. It is accepted among most folklorists that fairy tales began as oral traditions, and did not take their written form until much later (Zipes, 2010). The story-telling tradition allows for much more flexibility in adapting stories for particular audiences, which is likely why there are so many different variations of classic stories such as Cinderella. This ability to adapt fairy tales likely resulted not only in geographic changes, but also in changes made for particular age groups. Indeed, even after the first edition of the Brothers Grimm collection of fairy tales, much of the content was edited and changed, making it more appropriate for the audience of the times (Tartar, 2004). These edits included removing much of the sexual content, and including harsher punishments for the villains of the stories. Even audiences of the original 1812 publication felt that the themes presented might not be child-friendly (Paradiz, 2009). Given that these stories started as oral traditions, and that even these early written versions were revised to be appropriate for children, it is no surprise that we continue to see revisions made to these classic stories so that they appeal to a modern audience. The Disney Corporation has made a fortune by adapting tales such as these for film, often taking liberties with the plot, characters, or details of the stories in order to make the films marketable. For instance, in Disney’s version of Snow White (1937), Snow White was tormented by an evil step-mother rather than her mother, and at the end of the film, the villain was presumably crushed by a rock, rather than being forced to dance to her death in red-hot iron shoes. Similarly, the changes made to Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) leave the film barely recognizable as the classic fairy tale, The Frog Prince. Although Disney is to be applauded for finally representing an African-American prince and princess, the setting, plot, and characters do not resemble the Grimm’s story, except in passing (Grimm & Grimm, 1994). Such continuing adaptations of fairy tales carry on a tradition likely started when these tales were first told, and one that can certainly continue. Even if parents are reluctant to tell the story of Rapunzel due to sexual themes, there is nothing stopping parents from omitting the sexual content of the story. If parents are concerned with the level of violence portrayed in Rumplestiltskin, they can select a milder retelling of the story. Additionally, parents can choose to simply not tell those stories they fell cannot be adapted to be age appropriate. Since the Brothers Grimm collected over 200 stories for their collection (Ashliman, 2011), parents have plenty of options to select stories that are appropriate for their child’s level of development.

Although parental concerns about sharing fairy tale stories with their children are understandable and even come from noble intentions, parents who do not share these classic works of literature with their children may actually be causing more harm than good. Ironically, fairy tales, although often fantastical in nature, can serve as an introduction to the reality of evil for children. Protecting children from this reality may stunt children’s development, making them unable to cope with the adult demands of the world around them. Fairy tales provide children a safe way to process and think about the implications of evil, as well as to understand themselves in context. By incorporating fairy tale elements into their own fantasies and thoughts, children are better able to understand themselves, and by extension, others around them. Children who are exposed to fairy tales, either through listening or acting them out, show markers of greater development than those who are not exposed. Finally, fairy tales are one of the most adaptable forms of literature. As such, they can be tailored to audiences of all ages and maturity levels. Additionally, the innocence or bawdiness, the mildness or violence, of the tale can be adjusted as appropriate to the listener’s preferences and developmental level. In sum, fairy tales might not have all started out as being for children, nor may they all be appropriate for all children. However, we should not discount their importance based on this alone. Parents need to realize that they can still reap the benefits of telling fairy tales to their children, while doing so in a safe and age-appropriate manner.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics (2001). PEDIATRICS, ISSN 0031-4005, 11/2009, Volume 124, Issue 5, pp. 1495 – 1503.

Asliman, D. L. (2011). The Grimm brothers’ children’s and household tales. Retrieved from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimmtales.html  on August 15, 2012.

Baker-Sperry, L. & Grauerholz, L. (2003). The pervasiveness and persistence of the feminine beauty ideal in children’s fairy tales. Gender & Society, 17, 711-726, doi: 10.1177/0891243203255605.

Bandura, A. (1976). Social learning theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cashdan, S. (1999). The witch must die: How fairy tales shape our lives. New York, NY US: Basic Books.

Crain, W. C., D’Alessio, E., McIntyre, B., & Smoke, L. (1983). The impact of hearing a fairy tale on children’s immediate behavior. The Journal Of Genetic Psychology: Research And Theory On Human Development, 143(1), 9-17.

Del, V. P., Clements, R., Erb, G., Musker, J., Oremland, J., Edwards, R., Lasseter, J., et al. (2009). The princess and the frog. Burbank, Calif: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Disney, W., Hand, D., Caselotti, A., La, V. L., Olsen, M., Stockwell, H., Churchill, et al. (1937). Snow White and the seven dwarfs. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Grimm, J. & Grimm, W. (1994). Grimms’ fairy tales. NY: Puffin Classics.

Henneberg, S. (2010). Moms do badly, but grandmas do worse: The nexus of sexism and ageism in children’s classics. Journal Of Aging Studies, 24(2), 125-134. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2008.10.003

Kiel, E. J., & Maack, D. J. (2012). Maternal BIS sensitivity, overprotective parenting, and children’s internalizing behaviors. Personality And Individual Differences, 53(3), 257-262. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.03.026

Paradiz, V. (2009). Clever maids: The secret history of the Grimm fairy tales. NY: Basic Books.

Saltz, E., Dixon, D., & Johnson, J. (1977). Training disadvantaged preschoolers on various fantasy activities: Effects on cognitive functioning and impulse control. Child Development, 48(2), 367-380. doi:10.2307/1128629

Spokas, M., & Heimberg, R. G. (2009). Overprotective parenting, social anxiety, and external locus of control: Cross-sectional and longitudinal relationships. Cognitive Therapy And Research, 33(6), 543-551. doi:10.1007/s10608-008-9227-5

Tartar, M. (2003). The hard facts of the Grimms’ fairy tales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tartar, M. (2004). The Annotated Brothers Grimm. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

The Telegraph (2012, February 12). Fairytales too scary for modern children, say parents. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9078489/Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html  on August 15, 2012.

von Franz, M. (1996). The interpretation of fairy tales (rev. ed.). Boston, MA US: Shambhala Publications.

Zipes, J. (2010). Sensationalist scholarship: a putative “new” history of fairy tales. Cultural Analysis, 9, 129+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA258435097&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w on August 15, 2012.

About professortimeblog

I am newly tenured Associate Professor, Director of First Year Studies and soon-to-be Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs at Bethany College.
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One Response to Are Fairy Tales for Children?

  1. Pingback: Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Not for Children! | Global Stay-cation

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