During an art therapy course which I attended several years ago, I learned about therapy through storytelling. We were asked which stories we liked best as children and how we felt when we listened to them. Before I became a mother, I hadn’t thought about fairy tales and what impact they had on me when I was little.
Living in post-communist Romania, I didn’t have access to many books. But my mother used to tell me a lot of stories from what she remembered growing up. I used to love listening to them. Her tone of voice, the explicit details, the suspense, they all made the story telling experience a very enticing one. The only problem was that most stories she recounted, were ones that reaffirmed my childhood traumas. Abandonment, conditional parenting, black and white vision, loss, cruel reality, actions of irresponsible adults and parents. Even though I loved listening to these stories, I always remember feeling desperate, anxious and sad at the end of each narration.
“The baby bird” by Ioan Al. Brătescu-Voinești, “The Goat and Her Three Kids” by Ion Creangă, “The Little Match Girl”, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow white” were some of the stories my mother told me during my lengthy meals. As much as I loved them, I remember eating with a lump in my throat while trying to fight back tears.
As a hyper sensitive child, those were not the stories I needed to hear. Fairy tales, folktales and fables were too dramatic, too cruel, too scary for a child who needed to be reassured and soothed. While I treasure the historical value of these stories, I cannot say that they always have a positive influence in shaping the children’s thinking and view of the world.
Most of these stories convey the same messages:
1. The world is black and white.
2. There are only good and bad people in this world.
3. The good people always suffer, but in the end they win the fight.
4. Parents are often authoritarian and if you don’t listen as a child you will most likely be punished, abandoned or given away.
5. Step mothers are portrayed as evil.
6. Almost everything is solved through violence.
7. Princesses often need saving. Women have often a minimal role in society.
And now the question is: Why would we want our kids to go to sleep with these thoughts? Why would we want our children to ruminate on such rigid and ungenerous perspectives of the world?
I want children to go to sleep knowing that things are never just black or white. This world is full of gray and if you don’t try to control everything, gray is actually beautiful. It gives you more options and it helps you compromise.
I want children to know that not everyone can be classified as good or bad. All persons have a bit of good and bad in them and that’s OK. I want children to know that it is alright to make mistakes and that loved ones will give them many chances to find their way. I want them to know that suffering is not conditional. It happens to everyone, but with compassion and love the suffering can be mended.
I want children to know that mothers or step mothers are not horrible people who don’t accept their children. I want them to know that violence is never the solution and that every problem can be solved through communication. I want girls to know that they don’t need to be saved by anyone. That they are the only ones in charge of their destiny and happiness. I want boys to know that they don’t need to save anyone and they don’t always have to be tough and strong. I want them to know that it is alright for them to embrace their weakness and sensitivity.
So does this mean that fairy tales are dead? No, not dead, but maybe history! From a literary point of view, they are too important to disappear and there is a lot of nostalgia tied to them. But we have to accept that they are indeed old fashioned tales portraying a rigid and turbulent world. And from my point of view, they should be read with caution and moderation to younger children.
We are lucky that we live in a world where literature for children has changed so much. When choosing books for your children, think about the impact on their inner and outer world view. First, choose stories which inspire love, trust, self-awareness and confidence in themselves and the world around them. And then, with care expose them to certain fairy tales, folktales and fables. The most important thing is that your child gets a balanced view of the world through literature.
Photo credits: Bruno Vilela