Ancient mythology and Aesop’s Fables certainly have a rightful place of importance in literature, but fairy tales offer something a little different to a child’s development. While there are some lovely fairy tale adaptations both on paper and on screen, the original versions of fairy tales work on a deeper level within a child’s mind—they enrich imagination, cultivate deeper understanding of life’s great truths, and elevate understanding of spiritual things that can be difficult and complex to convey.
These weird, sometimes intense, yet powerful wonder tales can benefit children in five ways.
1. They show good conquering evil.
We live in a literary time of realism and post-modern anti-heroes. The good guy turns out to be a villain. The scoundrel has a sympathetic back story. Bad things happen to good people no matter their right choices. This is reality, we tell ourselves. We want our children to be prepared for the harshness of real life, bolstered for life’s difficulties.
Real-life conflict is layered with complexity. Fairy tales, however, are not.
Fairy tale characters have clear traits—good, clever, kind, evil, callous, devious. We’re almost never privy to their motivations and inner thoughts. In this context, such things don’t matter.
Characters are pure representations used to illustrate what the story is teaching us. Good is good; evil is evil. And good can overcome evil in the end.
Gray areas rarely exist within fairy tales because that isn’t the point. They often contain oversimplifications because that’s a function of how they teach us universal truths. We might fret about how these details could negatively impact kids. However, children typically hear and accept simplified elements as metaphors better than any adult who is knee-deep in the complexities of real life.
Marina Warner states it this way in her book Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale:
“Fairy tales are stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things.”
The simplicity of good overcoming evil is deeply reassuring to a child struggling to make sense of the wide world around them.
2. They illustrate that actions beget consequences.
Have you ever read a translation of the original story of Cinderella? We tend to think of the mean stepsisters as ugly, awkward, and jealous of Cinderella for her radiant beauty. In reality, they’re described as:
“…two daughters who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart…”
In contrast, Cinderella is described as “pious and good” and loyal to the memory of her dear mother but not necessarily called beautiful (or blonde with an unblemished complexion, for that matter). At the beginning of the story, she is exhorted by her dying mother to remain true to these qualities, and she holds fast to them throughout dire circumstances.
The characters are defined by their actions, and their actions determine their fate.
The results are extreme. Remain pure of heart and become a princess! Be vile and black of heart and get your eyes pecked out by pigeons! Extreme, yes, but this is how fairy tales teach us.
The lesson isn’t that being “pious and good” leads to a cushy, perfect life with a prince in a castle. The lesson is that your actions matter and the choices you make lead to outcomes. Being vile and black of heart will affect your life. Striving for kindness and humility in life matters.
3. They show ordinary people overcoming great obstacles.
One of my favorite quotes about fairy tales comes from G. K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Some might worry that filling little minds with stories of evil witches and scary monsters will create nightmares, but the world is already full of big, scary things to a young child.
Fairy tales bring deep fears to the surface and smash the fears to smithereens with epic tales of these obstacles being overcome. And they do this while the child feels secure and safe on the lap of a loving parent. (I do, of course, recommend using discretion if your child is particularly sensitive.)
Being clever and kind might not always be the answer to overcoming real-life trials, but the tale of The Brave Little Tailor encourages children to try. Not everyone has confidence to conquer obstacles like Grimm’s Four Skillful Brothers, but the tale offers hope amidst big, scary real-life “dragons.”
4. They enrich imaginations.
To a child, the world might be full of “dragons” that require conquering, but it’s also full of wonder and mystery. The luckiest adults are the ones who maintain that child-like wonder as they age.
Read fairy tales to a child, and they’ll revel in the mystery of a quiet walk in the woods with possible fairies and gnomes behind every tree. Fill their souls with stories of magical lands, and watch them soar in their imaginative play. Give them fairy tale heroes to emulate, and celebrate when they vanquish their foes.
Fairy tales stretch imaginations far beyond what is typical. Children don’t need to be reminded of the world’s harsh realities; they need to be filled with wonder at its beauty and possibilities.
5. They benefit every age.
The great thing about fairy tales is that kids of any age can jump right in and benefit from reading and discussing them. No matter the level of understanding, there’s always something to take away.
After a decent introduction to fairy tales, children can begin to recognize story patterns and similarities between versions. This is where the fun begins. No matter the age, kids will impress you with their varied observations. All they need is some familiarity with the genre and mental space to process.
Initiating fairy tale discussions with children will look different depending on age and maturity, but don’t be intimidated to begin.
Choose a collection of original fairy tales. Discuss story elements in a fun way. And be amazed at the powerful impact these weird and wonderful tales can have on a child.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales(an introductory selection read by award-winning narrators)
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