Once Upon a Time: The Importance of Fairy Tales for Children

February 26, 2020 Updated: March 28, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

I hardly knew my mother’s mother, who died when I was in second grade, but to this day, one picture of her face remains vivid in my memory.

Three years before her death, we were in an upstairs room of our house, and Grandma was telling me the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Her front teeth were large, and protruded a bit, and when she came to the part where Little Red Riding Hood says to the wolf, “What big teeth you have, Grandmother,” my grandmother scared the dickens out of me by then roaring, “The better to eat you up with, my dear,” and snapping those teeth at me.

Whenever I reach that point in the story, while telling it to my own children and grandchildren, in my mind’s eye, I don’t see a wolf. I see Grandma.

That’s no insult to her. It’s very much a tribute both to her storytelling talents and to fairy tales.

From Campfires to Movie Theaters

For untold generations, human beings have swapped stories about fairies and goblins, princesses in distress, witches, spells, animals transformed into people and vice versa. Some folklorists like the Brothers Grimm collected and recorded these tales. Others like Hans Christian Andersen composed their own fairy tales.

Even today, writers refashion or invent fairy tales. After all, what is Tolkien’s beloved “Lord of the Rings” if not a fairy tale par excellence?

Some of these tales are as familiar to Americans as the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”—Disney has made a fortune releasing these and other films. Fairy tales have also appeared frequently on television, in series ranging from the “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” of the 1950s to the more recent “Once Upon a Time.”

Are Fairy Tales Harmful?

Not everyone finds value in these stories.

In “Five Reasons to Stop Reading Your Children Fairy Tales Now,” Olivia Petter attacks fairy tales as “riddled with prejudicial and archaic stereotypes,” claiming that they perpetuate “misogynistic characters, degrading plot lines and racial uniformity.” She is especially critical of what she sees as sexism in these stories, women who stay at home, princesses who need rescuing, evil stepmothers, and witches.

She writes, “In a culture where we’re getting hitched later than ever before and many choose never to marry at all, the compulsory ‘let’s get married and live happily ever after’ narrative seems practically medieval.”

Despite the fact that many women still do wish for marriage and family, there is an unintended irony in this criticism. Today’s females, most of whom surely heard fairy tales when they were children or watched them in a movie theater, belong to the most independent generation of women the world has ever seen. Fairy tales, therefore, seem to have inflicted little damage on the female psyche.

And as so often happens these days, when political correctness has wormed its way into every corner of our lives, this criticism misses the bigger picture, especially the value of fairy tales for the very young.

Here are four good reasons for sharing fairy tales with our children.

Distinction Between Darkness, Light Is Sharply Drawn 

Let’s consider the Brothers Grimm version of “Cinderella.” Unlike the Disney cartoon, Cinderella’s dying mother enjoins her to “be good and pious.” Her sisters “were beautiful and fair in appearance, but at heart were black and ugly.” As the story progresses, we see a real struggle between good and evil. (At the end of the original tale, two pigeons pluck out the wicked stepsisters’ eyes. Fairy tales can be violent.)

Not only do fairy tales illustrate the canyon between good and evil, but they also show children that evil can be overcome, that good can win out in the end. When I watch my small grandchildren wave their sword sticks at imaginary enemies, and I ask them to identify their opponents, they always reply, “The bad guys.”

Later, when they are older, they will be able to parse moral ambiguity, but first, they must learn the basic distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

A quote attributed to G.K. Chesterton—he put down the idea, but not in these words—offers this wisdom: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” When Jack kills the giant by hacking down the beanstalk, when the Gretel shoves the witch into the oven, when the Red Cross Knight dispatches the dragon, children see good triumphing over evil.

Fairy Tales Fire Up Imagination

We all enjoy turning on the ignition switch of the imagination. Consider the popularity of the Star Wars movies or the many superhero movies of the last 20 years.

Children have this same need. The fantasy of a fairy tale not only helps them to make sense of reality, but it also stretches the imagination. Just as a playground builds muscles, balance, and motor skills in a child, so too can fairy tales build up the powers of imagination and creative play in the mind.

Fairy Tales Offer Life Lessons on a Level Children Can Understand

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” teaches a child that human beings can deceive themselves. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” warns against taking what belongs to others. “The Three Little Pigs” stresses the importance of a job well done. “Pinocchio” tells youngsters that lying is a bad idea.

These tales get their messages across through entertainment rather than overt moralizing. The listening child absorbs these lessons along with the story’s enchantments.

goldilocks
“Somebody has been at my porridge, and has eaten it all up!” From “English Fairy Tales” (1918) by Flora Annie Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. (Public domain)

Fairy Tales Are a Part of Our Culture and Tradition

Tradition derives from the Latin “tradere,” meaning “to hand on,” “to hand over.” When we fail to hand over a part of that culture, we are failing the young. Many young people, for example, are ignorant of the Bible, which means they will be stymied by literary or conversational references even to basics like “Sermon on the Mount” or “the widow’s mite.”

The same is true of fairy tales. Most of the young are familiar with such tales as “Cinderella” or “Aladdin” through movies, but how many know “The Princess and the Pea” or “Rumpelstiltskin?” By sharing these stories with our youngsters, we introduce them into the broader culture.

“Once upon a time….” When strung together, surely those are four of the most magical words in the English language.

Let’s make sure our children hear them.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.