I grew up listening to, watching and reading fairy tales as a kid. Now that I have kids of my own, I want to pass that tradition on to them. Reading fairy tales together is part of our bedtime routine, and my kids love it. The problem is, my youngest keeps having bad dreams related to the stories we read. (For example, bad dreams about wolves chasing her after reading Little Red Riding Hood). Though she has these dreams, she insists that she wants to hear the stories still. My husband insists the fairy tales are too scary for her, and we should switch to different stories at bedtime. What do you think we should do?
Mother-to-mother: I too was read fairy tales as a child, and can personally understand your desire to pass that tradition down to your children. Fairy tales can be funny, strange, sad, bizarre, and pretty much everything between. In fact, there have been many satirical versions of fairy tales in pop culture (i.e. Shrek, Into the Woods, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister). When you take a moment to really think about some of the plots in the fairy tales we read to children, they can seem a liiiiittle bit crazy. Depending on what PR agent these classic fairy tales could afford, they could have either of the following synopses:
Hansel and Gretel
“Two brave siblings go on an adventure in the forest. Together using their quick wit they defeat a bad guy!”
“Father kicks his young children out of the house; starving and alone in the woods they soon stumble upon a house made of candy. Turns out it’s inhabited by a female cannibal who holds them hostage until they are fat enough to eat. Holy crap, why has NO ONE called Child Protective Services yet?”
“Resilient young lady beats all odds with the help of forest animals and eight friends- then goes on to marry the man of her dreams!”
“Sociopathic woman enslaves step-daughter, and then hires a hit man to murder said step-daughter. Why? Because the mirror that talks to her tells her that she’s looking a little older these days.”
The Three Little Bears
“Cute little blonde girl with curls investigates how bears like to live!”
“Child burglar breaks into a family’s home and goes through all of their things without any repercussions because #whiteprivilege.”
So if fairy tales truly are these strange stories comprised of plot lines that sound like they were written by someone who may or may not have had a little too much to drink, why does generation after generation keep reading them to their kids? Are they appropriate for young children?
On the developmental side of things: Famous child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, helps to best explain why fairy tales are actually more than what they seem:
“For a story to truly hold the child’s attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him… Just because his life is often bewildering to him, the child needs even more to be given the chance to understand himself in this complex world with which he must learn to cope. To be able to do so, the child must be helped to make some coherent sense out of the turmoil of his feelings.”
In other words, children can use fairy tales to help them better understand the world around them, in addition to finding possible ways with which to cope with problems they may experience. Children can identify with challenge(s) a character may face, as well as take comfort in the resolution or triumph a character achieves. Fairy tales can potentially empower children, become lessons, and enable them to find metaphorical parallels to their own lives.
The famous poet Johann Schiller wrote:
“Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”
The age of your youngest child wasn’t specifically stated in your question, so I’m just assuming that she is potentially between the ages of 2-7 years old. If my assumption is correct, children within that age range typically fall under Piaget’s preoperational stage of cognition. During this developmental stage, children can sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and may still be working towards separating the two. This means that your daughter could think that the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood is outside in the forest waiting for her. The only way to know what she thinks, is to ask her. If she does think the wolf is real, you could have a conversation with her about how the wolf is only in the story. Another part of your conversation could be about what happens to the wolf and why. Who comes out on top at the end of the story? How did that outcome happen?
If you and your husband decide that the fairy tales are just a bit too scary for her now, I would encourage you to continue your bedtime reading routine- but perhaps switch to different stories for the time being. Reading with your children is not only great bonding time, it also encourages and promotes literacy. When she’s a little older and more cognitively developed, you can always switch back!