An old crone with no eyes takes in a princess who later goes on a search for said eyes and brings them back only to find the crone dead so she keeps them in a jar to watch over her. Some parents abandon their children in the woods to let them be devoured or starve to death. Evil Queens plot and talking animals give quests. And scariest of all (to me) a house on chicken legs houses a child eating witch.
Why do we read such things to our children? I’ll tell you why! They are simply magical. I grew up reading fairy tales (boy do I remember the ones about Baba Yaga!) and enjoyed them. I have read them to my children. But I don’t think I recognized their power until recently. Deciding to send my daughter to a Waldorf inspired school has brought them more to my attention. In a Waldorf school fairy tales have a large part to play and I’ve wondered why. Why just fairy tales and not other stories?
Think back. Waaaaay back. Back when there was no paper or at least when the common person didn’t have paper. Storytelling was entertainment, but also more than that. All around the world, people would gather around a fire, inside or out, winter or summer, and tell stories. Stories about their beginnings, stories about their experiences, stories about their dreams. Alot of these stories had commonalities. A Hero/Heroine, some struggle, magical qualities, a reformation. Why did people tell stories? Just for entertainment?
Sharifa Oppenhiemer says in her book Heaven on Earth “Through the use of story, we can give our children powerful tools necessary to make sense of their lives. Stories offer our children examples of solutions for the difficulties they will encounter as they grow and develop. They also image for our children various qualities of character that will aid them in these difficulties. these images can lay a foundation of strength for a lifetime.” Not only are fairy tales enjoyable (which they certainly are!) but through them our children can learn and experience a wealth of things in a safe place.
In the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne he tells a story of a mother and her 6 year old daughter who came in to see him because of a hard situation they were in. The mother had a very ill brother who lived a ways away and she had been going to visit him often for 5 days at a time. The daughter was terribly angry with her mother, not only for leaving but for being sad. The mother said she had told her daughter the truth about her uncle, she didn’t want to make up some story about her being gone. He replied “Yes, she deserves both the truth and stories. But she needs more stories now, to help her with the truth.” He then suggested that she tell stories about someone in a scary situation who finds a way out. Though a little miffed at the prescription of “fairy tales” the mother tried it and said the stories soothed her daughter and they made this hard time easier for her.
I have been worried at times that some of the stories might be too scary for my daughter. Of course you will want to wait on some stories and tell kinder ones to your 3-4year olds, ones mostly about the world in which we live. Having said this, you may be surprised by your children’s reactions. My 6 year old loves the scary ones, and has never had nightmares about them. S. Oppenheimer says “Fairy Tales characteristically state a problem in clear, unmistakable terms. The plot is laid out simply, and the characters are drawn in bold, unambiguous strokes-the evil queen is, truly, evil incarnate, the youngest son has a pure and golden heart. At this point, the child needs to see the various ‘qualities’ of the human soul laid out in understandable terms, personifies in the different figures in the tale. We see opposite qualities laid side by side: one sister is virtuous and industrious, the other lazy and cunning.”
I love reading fairy tales with my kids and making some up with them too! Truly, there is nothing so entertaining (and educational!) as a well told story. I end with a quote from Albert Einstein.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”