The Importance of Fairy Tales in a Child’s Life
Wisdom from Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment
I spent many delicious hours as a child reading fairy tales. Even today, many of the stories I devoured ring clear in my head, although I have not read them in perhaps forty years. Stories of dancing princesses escaping to an underground world of music and balls, the finding of a magic ring baked in a cake, the agony of a sister trying to free her brothers from a spell that has changed them into swans-these elements of fairy tales sank deep into my heart and imagination and continue with me today. Why is this?
As I pondered this question, I had a chance meeting with a woman who had run a Christian bookstore for years. She told me of the many parents who would come into the store looking for suitable reading material for their children. When offered fairy tales, they would shy away, fearing the dark and disturbing images that had the potential to frighten and traumatize their young ones. Their argument would go like this: “Fairy tales are scary and present the world dishonestly. They would make my child confused as to what is real and what is fabricated. They are full of ogres and witches and giants, so why should I allow my child to be terrified by things that aren’t even real?”
Because I write full-length Christian-based fairy tales, I decided to explore these questions and address these valid concerns of many parents. I thought back to a book I had read when my first daughter was born: Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, The Uses of Enchantment. I remember the impact that book had on me, and because of its logic, chose to immerse my children in the world of fantasy and fairy tales throughout their childhood. Now that they are grown, I have asked them how these stories have shaped and affected their worldview and creativity. They have no doubt that their lives have been seriously enriched by this experience, and reading fairy tales has contributed toward their healthy and confident attitudes about the challenges and terrors of this life.
Bruno Bettelheim was a child psychologist, famous for his research on autism. The aforementioned book written in 1976 won him a National Book Award. I love what he writes in the introduction. “Wisdom does not burst forth fully developed like Athena out of Zeus’s head; it is built up, small step by small step, from most irrational beginnings. Only in adulthood can an intelligent understanding of the meaning of one’s existence in this world be gained from one’s experiences in it. Unfortunately, too many parents want their children’s minds to function as their own do-as if mature understanding of ourselves and the world, and our ideas about the meaning of life, did not have to develop as slowly as our bodies and minds. Today, as in times past, the most important and also the most difficult task in raising a child is helping him to find meaning in life.”
Working in the field of autism presented Bettelheim with the challenge of restoring meaning to the lives of severely disturbed children. He found most literature for young readers to be sadly lacking in the ability to accomplish this task, but also knew that literature held the best promise to pass on cultural heritage, which he felt was crucial. And this was what he deemed necessary: “To enrich [the child’s] life, it must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time relate to all aspects of his personality-and this without ever belittling but, on the contrary, giving full credence to the seriousness of the child’s predicaments, while simultaneously promoting confidence in himself and in his future.” He goes on to say how important it is that literature provide a moral education which subtly, and through implication only, “conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior.” His conclusion? “The child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales.”
The German poet Schiller wrote: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.” How can this be? Bettelheim says, “These tales start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being. They speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands and . . . offers examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties.”
Parents longing to protect their children from evil, scary things in the world do well to remember that this is the world to which we are preparing them to face. By hiding that world from their awareness, by trying to postpone or color the harsh realities of life, we are doing them a great disservice. We have the Bible as the master example of frankness and the revealing and candid exposing of evil in its many forms. God did not censor murder, rape, betrayal, cruelty, incest, and even sexual passion from the pages of His word. Parents may argue that a young child does not need to learn about these things, and it is true-there is a time and season for all things, and some are best to cover when a child may be more mature to understand and emotionally deal with some of these things.
Here’s what Bettelheim says: “In child or adult, the unconscious is a powerful determinant of behavior. When the unconscious is repressed and its content denied entrance into awareness, then eventually the person’s conscious mind will be partially overwhelmed by derivatives of these unconscious elements, or else he is forced to keep such rigid, compulsive control over them that his personality may become severely crippled . . . . The prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child-that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”
Rather than shelter children from life’s evils, we can equip them with the tools needed to face them head-on with confidence. Bettelheim says that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human experience. If one does not shy away, “but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”
The Elements of Fairy Tales
The fairy tale, according to Bettelheim, confronts the child squarely with the most scary subjects in life: death, aging, loss of a parent, being trapped or lost, and other stresses. The fairy tale simplifies all situations, allowing the child to come to grips with the problem in its most essential form. The figures are clearly drawn and the details, unless very important, are eliminated. All characters are typical rather than unique. Evil is as common as any virtue and both are usually embodied in the form of a figure or their actions. Evil is not without its attractions, “symbolized by the mighty dragon or giant, the power of the witch, the cunning queen in ‘Snow White.’ ” In many fairy tales the usurper succeeds for a time-as with Cinderella’s sisters and step-mother-but in the end, the evildoer is punished, and the moral is that crime does not pay. Because the child follows the hero through his or her journey, he can identify with the hero in all his struggles-suffering and triumphing with him. Bettelheim says that the child “makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.”
The most important element in fairy tales, to me, is the moral choice presented to the hero. The child learns that choices have consequences, and the child can choose what kind of person she wants to be. Only by “going out into the world” does the hero learn, and acquire happiness. The fairy tale is future-oriented and guides the child, so that instead of escaping into a world of unreality, she is given tools to help her develop character and courage to face what the world presents to her. Often the hero is lost, alone, frightened. These are feelings a child identifies with. Yet, her hero is guided and given help along the way because of his determination and courage. In this way, fairy tales work their own kind of magic, for in reading them, the child feels understood and enriched, giving the child what Bettelheim says is “an enchanted quality just because he does not quite know how the stories have worked their wonder on him.
“Fairy tales, unlike any form of literature, direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further. Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach despite adversity-but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity.” This is a basic tenet of the Bible as well: that those who want to please God and obtain his favor need to endure difficulties; that these trials produce endurance, character, and hope, and that the hope does not disappoint (Romans 5:3-5).
So, do not discount fairy tales as a bad influence on your children. Rather, be selective, and choose age-appropriate stories to give to them. But do not be afraid of unleashing their imagination and letting them confront their darkest fears. By giving them heroes to identify with, you are letting those fears surface in a subtle manner, and allowing your child to find his courage and make moral choices vicariously-choices that will build his character and have influence on the rest of his life.
I look at my daughters, now grown, and see how that world of imagination and fantasy helped them to face evil and struggles, gave them confidence and courage, and stimulated their imagination which poured over into their art, writing, poetry, and music. We cannot hide our children from the evils of the world, and even explaining everything in a pat manner from God’s Word does not dispel the deep fears and worries a child has. Only by bringing them to the surface in a safe and imaginative way can we as parents help them mature and become responsible adults. I think of that word, responsible, as response-able, for that is our goal: to help our children become able to respond competently to any situation life puts before them, and fairy tales will help them do just that.