Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

Musings on the recent spate of fairytale phobia

Once upon a time, parents used to read their children fairytales, but a study conducted last year by the US television channel Watch, caught the headlines reporting a trend that fairytale reading is on the decline.

Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk are apparently out of favour with parents. Why? Well, the somewhat nonsensical reasons ranged from bad examples about house work, condoning stealing, child abandonment, the awkward endings ie. the Gingerbread Man getting eaten by the fox and because they are unrealistic.

Then in May this year, a UK Booktrust study released findings that were more hopeful citing 70% of parents read their children fairytales with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk actually among the favourites. Interestingly favourite characters were Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and Rumpelstiltskin. Have a look at, because it insightfully breaks the stories down according to gender (mums and dads and boys and girls), the fairytales themselves and the individual fairytale characters.

But if it's true that parents have a fairytale phobia, then I find it sad, ironic and fascinating. Sad because I think children are really missing out on some great stories that will stay with them for the rest of their life - who can ever un-forget a fairytale? They're missing the valuable cultural knowledge that comes with being well versed in fairytales along with the ability to develop their understanding of abstract concepts such as heroism, wisdom, arrogance, recklessness, deceit, jealousy, loyalty, sacrifice and love.

Ironic because from my readings of blogs posts on the subject, it was interesting to note that while great concern and analysis was given over reading fairytales, a lot of commentators more than happy to read their children Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree and lamented (or were downright outraged), that politically correct versions of these stories had been released.

And fascinating because it had never occurred to me to not read my kids fairytales (I'm not sure what this says about me as a parent though!). My children have heard many fairytales, many versions, many times over (we would read about two most days) and I can honestly say they have never been unduly frightened or upset by the stories. Their emotional responses to the fairytales have been appropriate - sure, when reading The Little Mermaid they squirmed when they heard that walking for her felt like walking on broken glass and they expressed their sadness when she died in the end, but they were accepting that that's what had to happen. Fingers crossed the lesson of the little mermaid stays with them for a long time... Equally, they've laughed at the silliness of the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes and of course have delighted in the happily ever afters of princess and princes.

So, what do the experts say?
Jack Zipes, a leading authority on fairytales was once famously told by Albert Einstein that if he wanted to do well in life, study fairytales - and that's exactly what he did. Now retired, he was professor in German and Comparative Literature studies and has great things to say in his article Are fairytales still useful to children?  Zipes points to the moral components of the tales, helping children deal with conflict, and confronting anxiety and psychological problems that can be provoked in a safe way, with the child/reader separated from the restrictions from reality.
"Fairytales are uncanny because they tell us what we need and they unsettle us by showing what we lack and how we might compensate for lack."
Author Philip Pullman is a big proponent of reading fairy tales, advocating for parents and teachers to continue reading and performing these to their children. He doesn't shy away from reading kids the scarier bits either "The bloodthirstier the better. Little scoundrels, give them something good."
I recall in Mem Fox's Reading Magic a connection between juvenile delinquency and lack of fairytale knowledge, and for a view on the place of fairytales today and the shock of some of them, AS Byatt has some interesting things to say in her article Happy ever after.

Lots of food for thought!

Of course, it's every parent's right to have the final call on what their children read, and that's the way it should be. That said, I think it would be a great shame if a significant part of literature was ignored purely because of rumour and innuendo, rather than a considered discussion about the facts.

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