“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.” ―Albert Einstein“Mothers didn’t understand that children aren’t frightened by stories; that their lives are full of far more frightening things than those contained in fairy tales.” ―Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
Once Upon a Time
Imagine you’re reading a bedtime story to your child. Little Jenny is all tucked in in her footie pajamas, you’re perched on the side of a bed with a large, important-looking tome with fancy pictures opened before you. You intone, “Once upon a time there was a girl who wore a red cape, and everyone called her Little Red Riding Hood. One day she was walking through the woods to take food to her ailing grandmother, but when she got to her grandmother’s cottage she found that the invalid was…not quite herself.”
“Of course!” you say. Very likely, you are automatically filling in the “What big eyes you have!” and “What big hands you have!” Or perhaps you’re beaming as you read this post, full-to-bursting with fond memories of your own parents reading you this very story. Maybe you even have a shadowy recollection of the Big Bad Wolf asking Red to take off all her clothes and get into bed with him. Or maybe you recall the version where Red decides to distract the Wolf by doing a slow, sultry strip tease (safety tip: if you’re about to be eaten by a large carnivore, this is an absolutely terrible idea) before making her escape.
Wait—what’s that you say? Not ringing a bell?
In sixth grade I became obsessed with reading fairy tales—especially after I discovered the non-Disney versions. In fact, when I happened upon the original Grimm stories in my middle school library, I assumed that these were the sexed-up, violent versions written after the Disney versions were penned in order to satisfy the lustful, depraved tendencies of modern readers!
Instead of going to lunch in the cafeteria, I’d go to the library. There, huddled over those so-called “fairy tales,” I was transported to a world where the Little Mermaid didn’t get pretty legs and a pretty prince; Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t saved by a convenient, passing woodcutter. In the Little Mermaid story that I remember, the prince runs off with another woman and the heroine commits suicide. Little Red Riding Hood? Well, she drops trou and hops in bed with the Wolf. And every once in a while, sitting in that library, I’d lift my head, look around, and think, “Do adults know what is in these stories?”
Suffice to say that the Brother’s Grimm versions were, well, grim.
Did you even wonder why patient, loving mothers get bumped off so quickly in fairy tales? Even if they’re replaced—as in Hansel and Gretel and Snow White—the alternates are selfish, wicked creatures, who boot the children out to fend for themselves as soon as possible.
Why? Why not give these poor orphans someone to braid their hair, help them with their homework, or at least set some practical teeth-brushing, TV watching, cookie-eating limits?
Because fairy tales, besides the rich legacy they leave in the subconscious, do more than delight and entertain: they teach our children how to grow up.
Good mothers—well, they nurture, cheer, and protect. In life, that’s their job, and it’s a vital part of keeping children healthy and resilient. They are the guardians of childhood, and there is no job more important. So why whip out such Grimm stuff at bedtime, where each gory tale makes an M-rated video game look like Ms. PacMan?
Because even though they come from the past, fairy tales speak to the future. The setting is perhaps unfamiliar, but the lesson is timeless.
Why Children Need to Make Mistakes
Jack and the Beanstalk concerns a simpleton (read: likeable, D-average class clown) whose mother sends him on a simple task: go to town and sell the cow. Instead, Jack trades their only source of income for a magic bean. Disgusted with her son’s disobedience and stupidity, the mother throws the bean out the window and sends Jack to bed without supper. The next morning, the beanstalk has grown so tall it pierces the clouds–and you all know how the story ends. (If you don’t, I’ll give you a hint: much, much better for Jack and his mum than for the rich giant at the top who would come to learn that it’s
not the fall that kills you—it’s the sudden stop.)
What does Jack and the Beanstalk teach a child? Well, since it’s doubtful that your child will be haggling with local market-goers, angling for a sweet price for the family bovine, I would venture that the lesson learned is simply this: trust. To trust that even if the world perceives a child to be foolish, in their hearts they are perhaps wiser than we know. To trust that things are not always what they seem, and that taking a risk can have incredible, life-affirming consequences.
Running Away from Home
Of course, we don’t really want our children to run away from home. (Well, unless the child in question is a girl between the ages of 13 and 17, one who has a most unbecoming habit of saying things to you such as “The reason why you’re single is because you’re a loveless wreck!” But I digress…)
Let’s take a look at the story Rapunzel. Locked in a tower by a wicked witch pretending to be her mother, Rapunzel grows up alone and lonely. When a handsome prince charms her out of her prison, the wrathful witch punishes them both. Eventually, however, Rapunzel and her prince find one another and live happily together (after she gets a trim and a new, stylish ’do; turns out living in isolation a hundred feet in the air in a castle with no door really hinders the timely delivery of your issues of Cosmopolitan and Vogue).
What message do our girls (and boys) take from this story? Rapunzel, I think, is about taking risks. Trapped in the tower, Rapunzel’s physical needs are met, but her soul is starved for affection and companionship. Only by leaving her ‘safety net—which is also her prison—can she hope to find true happiness.
In The Frog Prince, a princess drops her favorite gold ball into a well and starts to cry. A frog offers to find her ball in exchange for a smooch. The princess accepts the bargain, but as soon as she has her ball, she reneges and runs back to the castle. The irate frog follows her, and eventually gets his way. Turns out, it’s not the princess he wants, just the kiss—it breaks a spell and restores him to all his princely glory. When she sees him in his true form, the princess is very, very sorry—but too late.
In many ways, the lesson in Frog Prince is perhaps the harshest of all. While parents are always willing to forgive and forget (well, at least forgive) the world does not always offer second chances. Whether it’s looking both ways before crossing the street, or not making a promise we don’t intend to keep, The Frog Prince offers our children a valuable life lesson they would do well to incorporate. (Note: In some versions, the frog does forgive the princess and marries her. We must assume that he was after her trust fund or that living in a well and eating flies for all those years turned his critical thinking skills to mush.
Whether your child is born to a life of privilege or one of hardship, fairy tales can be a grounding influence—yes, happiness is yours for the taking, but no one hands it to you. So grab your sword, horse, cape, and boots, (translation: college education, used car, trust, and faith), and conquer the world.