“But they’re so awful!”
This is a response I often hear from parents when I recommend Grimm’s fairy tales as basic reading fare. The idea of regaling their young children with stories of orphans and witches, kidnappings and murders—at bedtime no less—is daunting, understandably. As parents we tend to want to present something of a Hallmark world to our children, so we naturally gravitate to soothing, sunny, children’s books, including sanitized versions of fairy tales classics. Wishing to shield them from the darker aspects of humanity, such as anger, greed, anguish, and cruelty, we wean our children on the proposition that people are all good. The problem is that even the youngest child knows differently in her heart of hearts.
And the disconnect between what we -- the ones they trust to be all-knowing -- present them and what they instinctively and intuitively know (that there are negative human aspects) breeds insecurity and distrust.
Unlike most screened children's entertainment, which features gratuitous incidents of violence without any context, fairy tales have been carefully honed with meticulous attention to the meaning of every image and act. The early crafters of these tales had the wisdom and vision to know what they were tapping into and accentuating. Fairy tales are universal, and engage deeply with the archetypes of the human psyche.
The aim of much of today’s media violence is simply to grab the child’s attention, usually without context or resolution. The confrontation between good and evil in fairy tales is designed to address the knowing children possess within -- that there is dark and light within each of us -- and to show them the triumph of forces of light, goodness, kindness, courage. And yes, many tales include brutal scenes, but unlike electronic media programmers, a child’s own waking mind (as she reads or listens to you read) will not create an image intolerable to her psyche.
“Good-day, Little Red-Cap,” he said.
“Thank you kindly, wolf.”
“Whither away so early, Little Red-Cap?”
“To my grandmother’s.”
Seasons and Meanings
Authentic fairy tales are most appropriate for school-aged children, meaning seven and older. Our daughter still loved hearing some of her favorites into her tween years! But there are a handful of Grimms' tales that are suitable for many younger children (and, as in all things, you need to know your own individual child). These can help create seasonal rhythm, which is so nurturing. The symbols, numerical themes, and repetitive rhythms of classic fairy tales hold deep meaning for children. Season-specific tales that are wonderful for the younger child, age four and up, include: (during the fall months) The Three Little Pigs; (during wintertime) Mother Holle and The Shoemaker’s Elves; (at the New Year) Jack and the Beanstalk; (in springtime) Briar Rose.
It is important, in giving our child the gift of a fairy tale, that we not explain its “meaning,” which robs the child of the experience of bringing his own soul and imaginative forces to the task of implicitly sussing out its particular relevance to him. Nor that we give her pat, definitive answers (“No, sweetface, there’s no such thing as giants/witches/Rumpelstiltskins”...) and thereby defuse the tale’s power to enchant, and to inspire the child toward weaving individual solutions to her unique dilemmas.
The wolf thought to himself: “What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful—she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act craftily, so as to catch both.”
Being a Wolf-Wise Parent
Here I see a fundamental irony in the parenting norms of today: on one hand, we want to protect our children from knowing too much too soon about troubling aspects of the real world (and thus recoil at the idea of Grimm’s grim tales). But at the same time, we hurry them in myriad other ways into that same adult world! We must not let our parental responsibility as authoritative guides veer to the wayside as kids press to participate in society’s rapid recruitment of children into all things adult -- including clothing, media, and bedtimes -- using such time-honored lobbying tactics as “But everyone’s wearing / doing / getting it!”
"Lift the latch,” called out the grandmother, “I am too weak, and cannot get up.”
The tapestry of reasons for our collective softening as parents is very nubby indeed. One contributing factor is the techno-materialism that has insinuated itself between not only parents and children, but parents and their wiser, stronger selves.
“Oh! but grandmother, what a terrible big mouth you have!”
“The better to eat you with!”
It is suggested that the deceptive power to mislead the soul’s pure nature is always portrayed in fairy tales by a wolf. Little Red Cap, whose hood symbolizes the emerging ego, wants to know everything about the world. Such knowledge also calls forth the darkening forces of matter. It takes experience and maturity to deal with such forces—and to guide our children in dealing with them.
In today’s information age, the wolf is always at the door. And lest we forget... the wolf had to first deceive and mislead the grandmother before claiming the child.
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak on prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to Mothering readers I'm offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a "Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child's Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors."