If you’ve dismissed fairy tales as silly or old-fashioned, think again, says Diana Noonan.
Fairy tales have had their fair share of bad press over the years. From fundamentalist thinkers who find them anti-God to well-meaning pacifists who insist they condone violence, this particular genre has faced scolding, censorship, and sanitising. But ditch these fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening stories from your child’s reading list and you may regret it, because fairy tales have a unique and important place in every young reader’s life.
Tackling fearful thinking
For those who hold to the notion that fairy tales are all about violence, there’s little we can do to dissuade them. After all, when faced with innocent children being locked in towers (Rapunzel), forced into hard labour by wicked stepmothers (Cinderella), and abandoned by parents (Hansel and Gretel), who can argue. Yet, stop for a moment, and consider the way young children really do experience fears in an over-the-top way. Few parents, for example, have avoided the “There’s a scary monster under my bed!” complaint at bedtime, or their six-year-old’s terror of shadows in the dark. Children’s fears are bold, raw, and totally unrealistic, yet that’s how it is for them. Thanks to fairy tales, however, these over-the-top, imaginary fears are accommodated and resolved through villains receiving an equally "out there" comeuppance. Wolves succumb to woodcutters’ axes, evil witches are pushed into ovens, and giants fall to their deaths from felled beanstalks. Thanks to fairy tales, the ghastly imaginary fears of the child are frequently harmlessly dissolved through the equally ghastly imaginary solutions in the story!
Developing a moral compass
The way we behave has much to do with the culture in which we are raised, yet some things don’t change from one society to the other, and one of then is the notion of good and bad. Never are these two opposing forces more bluntly represented than in fairy tales. And never are the forces more obviously dealt with than in this genre. The villains are punished while the virtuous, meek, and hard-working are rewarded. Of course this is not exactly the way the world works; yet for a young child, it is a "near-enough" explanation which will serve them well until such time that they have developed an understanding of the subtleties of human nature. What’s more, although the lessons learned through fairy tales are didactic in the extreme, the contexts in which they are told are so enthralling that children don’t stop to question what they’re being taught! If you want your children to learn the difference between right from wrong, find them a fairy tale. And when they’ve enjoyed it for the umpteenth time, don’t be tempted to question them on what they’ve learned. If you do, you’ll be destroying the tale’s subtext, which will certainly have been absorbed by your young reader.
Problem-solving can be complex but, as with most things, they way to learn the art is to begin slowly – which is where fairy tales come in. Fairy tale characters are always faced with problems which, if they want to survive, have to be solved. The problems, while they may be frightening, aren’t, however, too complex. But they’re also not too simple, so there’s plenty of scope for experimenting with solutions. Hansel and Gretel realise the potential to get lost in the forest, so decide the best thing to do is to use some of their precious bread to leave a crumb trail. But the forest birds thwart their plans by gobbling the crumbs. If, while reading fairy tales to children, you stop now and then to examine the "solutions" characters come up with to solve problems, you’re giving your child the opportunity to succeed in problem-solving where a fairy tale character may fail! There are also plenty of examples in fairy tales of characters who make the right decisions first time. The message to a young reader is clear: If you make the right decision, things are probably going to go your way!
Introducing worlds of difference
One of the best things about fairy tales is that they have been used by every culture to simultaneously teach and entertain (after all, who’s going to listen long enough to get the message if the story isn’t riveting?). When you build fairy tales into your child’s reading list, you are exposing them to cultures and environments they may never have met before. Take them, through fairy tales, to Ethiopia, Australia, or the Arctic, and although they will be meeting new geography and different peoples, the "lessons" will still be familiar. There will still be goodies and baddies, rights and wrongs, rewards and punishments. And the combination of "new but familiar" is always a winner with young readers.
Diana Noonan is one of NZ's best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the NZ curriculum.