Fairy tales have gotten a bad reputation in recent years. Clean versions of classic fairy tales like Rapunzel and Cinderella have been derided as unauthentic. The original Grimm stories, however, have been deemed too violent. Even beloved Disney adaptations have come under attack as promoting abusive relationships (“Beauty and the Beast”) and racism (“Moana”). As such, some parents have practically thrown up their hands and tossed the old fairy tale book out the window. Putting down a blanket ban on fairy tales, however, is a mistake. While yes, the old tales were filled with blood and danger, sanitized versions of classic tales have a great deal to teach children.
SelflessnessOne of the classic tropes in fairy tales is for the protagonist to give away something of great value or share what little they have with another person. In most cases, this selfless decision is then rewarded. This trope is played out in the original version of “The Little Mermaid.” At the end of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, Ariel’s sisters bargain with the sea witch to give Ariel a way to turn back into a mermaid. If Ariel remains a human, she will die at sunrise because the prince chose to marry another. The catch is that Ariel’s way to return to the sea is murdering the prince. Ariel refuses and dies at sunrise. Her selfless decision earns Ariel the chance to win an immortal soul after death.
Selflessness is also emphasized by the terrible things that befall the characters in fairy tales who are selfish. They are transformed into animals, cursed and killed in any number of bizarre and painful ways. While parents may not want to elaborate on the bloody fate of the stepsisters in the original Cinderella story, the transformation of a selfish prince into a horrible beast drives the point home.
CourageThe classic image most people picture when they think of fairy tales is that of a knight in shining armor fighting off a dragon. This is largely because one of the most important lessons in fairy tales is the importance of bravery and courage. Heroes and heroines face all sorts of dangers in fairy tales from the evil dragon in “The Two Brothers” to the strange little man in “Rumpelstiltskin.” These examples of courage often involve the protagonist standing their ground even when they are hopelessly outmatched. There are far worse lessons to teach children who will face down the dragons of drugs, sex, alcohol, violence and peer pressure than to stand their ground and fight back against what would harm them.
PatienceCurses last a long time in fairy tales. These long curses drive home the importance of patience. It would not be easy to wait 100 years for a curse to end, but protagonists in fairy tales do so all the time. Those who are not patient often end up paying for their impatience. In a culture where everything anyone could want is just a few clicks away, and children as young as elementary school are bombarded with Facebook likes, instant gratification is becoming the norm. In this environment, there are worse things to read to children at night than “The Six Swans” where the heroine must work diligently and patiently for seven years in order to save her brothers.
ClevernessMost people think of feats of strength when they think of fairy tales, but most fairy tale heroes and heroines are actually victorious because they are quick witted and clever. Gretel manages to kill the evil witch in “Hansel and Gretel” by tricking the witch into looking into the over. The clever heroine in “The Feather Bird” manages to outsmart an evil sorcerer in order to defeat the villain in one of the bloodiest of the Grimm fairy tales. Jack survives the giant in “Jack and Beanstalk” by being too clever and quick for the giant to catch. The woman of “A Woman’s Wiles,” meanwhile, creates both the conflict and the resolution when she tricks a smug man into getting himself in trouble and then concocts a clever plan to help him get out of the mess he made. In a time when “nerds” and “geeks” are still bullied in schools and TV shows are filled with vapid reality stars, it is good for children to have a few clever role models.
Value of the IndividualEven the oldest fairy tales manage to emphasize the importance of the individual. Fairy tale heroes and heroines are not always given proper names. Many of them are called “the eldest sister” or “the young man,” and they are not usually identified by their ethnic or social groups. They are often described briefly as being “poor,” “a princess” or “from a far away land,” but the importance of what they are pales in comparison to who they are. Fairy tales remind children that what matters is not what groups they belong to but who they are and what they do with their lives.
CompassionOld fairy tales are known for the bloody endings of their villains, but even old fairy tales contain some startling examples of compassion especially for the times in which they were written. The Japanese fairy tale “The Mirror of Matsuyama” ends with the protagonist forgiving her stepmother for all the pain that she caused the protagonist. In the Arabic fairy tale “Women’s Wiles,” the woman who tricked the smug man into getting himself into so much trouble takes pity on him and helps him find his way back out of the mess he made. Numerous other fairy tales showcase men and women sparing animals only to have those animals come back to help them later. In a time when people are becoming increasingly tribal and wary of strangers and “outsiders,” the importance of teaching children compassion cannot be overstated.
LoveGiven that most classic fairy tales were written in the Middle Ages, it is no surprise that they are not the best examples of modern, healthy relationships. That said, fairy tales still place an important emphasis on love. They are not all examples of romantic love either. “The Snow Queen” involves a courageous young girl who braves dangers to save her friend. “The Six Swans” includes a woman who is driven by her love for her brothers, and Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” originally meets the Beast when she goes to rescue her father. Love in all forms remains a central theme of fairy tales from the old to the latest Disney version of these classic tales.
CreativityFairy tales involve a number of creative characters. The young man from “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has to find creative ways to tail the princesses who vanish every night, and the titular character in “Bearskin” gets creative in order to find a way to identify himself to his future wife when he returns after a year.
In addition to having creative characters, fairy tales encourage children to develop their own creativity. Most fairy tales do not list detailed appearances of the characters which forces children to make up their own mental picture of the characters. The vague descriptions of places and events also help children develop their imaginations by envisioning what is happening in the story. This creativity, in turn, will be an invaluable skill for children in later life.
Fairy tales contain valuable lessons for children. Patience, creativity, cleverness and bravery are rewarded while arrogance, greed and lies are punished. The wicked are defeated, and good reigns supreme. While these tales may seem simple to adults, they are important for children. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Let children learn that evil can be beaten and that they have the tools to do it. If they grow up knowing that, they will have the mindset they need to truly change the world for the better.