Why We Need Fairy Tales

Eliza Clark
December 27, 2011

All this week, we are taking a look at some of our favorite articles from the past year. This one is from our "Retold Fairy Tales" series that originally ran in March 2011. Enjoy! 

Why do we need fairy tales? In this day and age, what purpose do they serve?

Back in ancient times (i.e. when we were young), fairy tales were ubiquitous. They had a corner on the market of young children's minds. Everyone knew all about Snow White and her jealous stepmother, Jack and his beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood and that nasty old wolf.

Today, however, fairy tales are fast being crowded out by lots of wonderful, inventive, charming stories (not to mention iPad apps) that are devoid of evil stepmothers who do their best to harm or outright murder the children in their care. As one parent we know commented, those stories were written for "harsher times." Today, blended families are more common than not, and talk of envy, aggression and death is usually kept as far from preschool ears as possible. So what use can fairy tales serve nowadays, other than to feed the (problematic in-and-of-itself) princess girly-girl frenzy?

It's a valid question.

And yet...we do see evidence of the profound value of fairy tales, even for kids who have access to a whole range of far sweeter stories. We know a four-year-old girl who, when angered because some treat was denied or a basic rule was enforced, will say things like "Mommy, you're like a mean wolf" or "Mommy, I think you're not my real mom, you're my step-mother today." Powerful words coming from someone who is under four feet tall. Those words are not easy to hear, and yet they express very clearly the strong, sometimes overwhelming emotions that bubble within the youngest children.

Fairy tales offer children a safe way to contemplate and articulate the powerful love and wrath that often animate them. Real parents are necessarily flawed, and must seem, to small kids, at once like benevolent fairies and, occasionally, malevolent witches all rolled into one. Our kids tend to grasp instinctively the allegorical nature of fairytales (it's parents, we find, who often take them too literally).

Fairy tales also connect children to a shared literary and cross-cultural legacy. As we are exploring this week over at the Being Savvy blog, stories like Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel have been retold and revised in so many different ways and by so many different cultures that they begin to seem like infinitely malleable reflections of their times. Reading these stories, is, in some ways, like teaching a language of symbols and images that our kids will learn to manipulate in their own way. Passive recipients, children are surely not.

Most compellingly, we see the value of fairy tales in their enduring ability to mesmerize children. With all of their fright and adversity and happy endings, these stories are simply spellbinding. Most fairy tales are about young people who must overcome the harsh and arbitrary ways of the adult world -- and nothing is more fascinating and necessary to kids than that.

From the Parents

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