Monday, January 13, 2014

The Morality of Fairy Tales

I love fairy tales. I always have. I can remember reading Grimm's fairy tales and Anderson's fairy tales over and over as a child, probably around the age of 7 or 8. I don't remember being disturbed by them, although some of them are quite bloody and brutal. I am actually more disturbed by them now, as a parent, then I ever was as a child. Perhaps as a child I knew they were pretend and so I didn't worry about it. Or perhaps as a child I just accepted things more without thinking about details, which is why the story of Noah's ark really bothers me now when it just seemed like a fun floating zoo story as a child.

My daughter loves fairy tales too, although I suspect that it's more a love of Disney princesses at this stage. She'll ask at bedtime for stories of Aurora and Rapunzel and Ariel and Cinderella, and I will tell her my version of the stories. Which has led to a few discussions of the concept of artistic license and the explanation that it's okay to change pretend stories but real stories (autobiographical or Biblical or scientific) have to be told the way they are. Despite some occasional disputes over details we are both enjoying the nightly ritual of telling stories. When she can read I will give her the original stories and I hope she will love them as much as I did, but I hope we will keep telling them together as well.

The advantage of telling the story yourself is you can tell it your way, emphasizing whichever point seems relevant or just interesting at the moment. Lately we've been focused on Rapunzel, probably because my husband recently watched "Tangled" (the Disney version of Rapunzel) with our daughter. Also because our daughter has recently become accomplished at building tall towers with her magnetic blocks and so she has the added fun of pretending that Rapunzel (and Rapunzel's mommy and daddy, which is her own addition to the story) are in her tower. Then she lets them out again, of course, and does it all again.

So the last few nights we've been telling the story of Rapunzel at bedtime. My version is a little closer to the classic Grimm's tale than Disney's but still with plenty of license. For example tonight, while we were telling Rapunzel, we talked about the possibility that maybe the witch learned to be good. Maybe while she was alone in the tower she became sorry for hurting other people and felt sad about her behavior and tried to do better. And so then maybe Rapunzel came back and let her out and the witch did good things for the rest of her life. We used the word "repent" and I explained what it meant; that people can do wrong things but they can be sorry and change. Other nights we've focused on the idea that maybe Rapunzel's daddy made a bad mistake agreeing to give the witch his baby. The idea of parents making mistakes is one we're starting to broach, so it helps to have an illustration. On other nights we've tackled the idea of selfishness and how it leads people to do bad things, like the witch wanting Rapunzel all to herself.

I like the morality of fairy tales as a teaching tool. Are they simpler than real life? Well, yes, of course. Most teaching tools do simplify the problem at hand, boiling it down into clear examples and counterexamples. Once the basics are mastered then it's easier to see the principles at work in more complex situations. In the case of fairy tales kindness, hard work, persistence, caring and sacrifice are rewarded while selfishness, meanness, laziness and aggression are punished. I know as our daughter gets older life will hand her complex situations, situations where she has to measure good against good or bad against bad and come up with the best choice she can. I hope our stories become part of the framework for her decisions.