When I was five or so, Disney was able to release The Little Mermaid. I was intrigued by the trailer and asked my brother what the story was about. His version: the little mermaid falls in love with the prince. To stay human, she has to stab two holes in her feet and throw herself overboard. I had great fun throwing my dolls off the couch, cheering about their sacrifice. Of course, when the movie came out I realized that my brother’s version wasn’t entirely accurate. (I was obsessed with the movie, by the way.)
Even though my brother missed a lot of major points, it’s probably closer to the original tale than the Disney version is. Most fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, or any other pre-20th century storyteller are a lot darker than the stories we tell children today. Granted, these were folktales, and not specifically children’s stories, so it would make sense that they’re a lot more violent or scary than most picture books. In a recent article, the Globe and Mail took a look at what it means for fairy tales to be dark and gritty or sanitized and safe. One point I liked:
“In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that the frightening elements of fairy tales helped children “grapple with emotional problems,” as Prof. Zipes puts it. Fairy tales give children a symbolic space, removed from reality, in which to deal with – and conquer – their anxieties safely.”
I think the idea of using stories as a safe way to grapple with personal fear and anxiety is huge. The evil stepmother can be scary, but she almost always fails and is brought to justice. This can help kids understand that even if things scare us, that doesn’t mean we can’t face our fears, like going to school or sleeping alone.
Still, it’s wise to understand that not all children are always ready to hear scarier stories:
But many feel that young children are too vulnerable to be exposed to the gory details from the original stories – such as Snow White’s stepmother being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she died. “As adults we can see the innocence in fairy tales, but a five-year-old with an overactive imagination could take things too literally,” Steve Hornsey, of the television channel Watch, which commissioned the British study, told the Daily Telegraph”
As with any media, it’s necessary to know what your child’s personal boundaries are, and to talk about potentially scary topics with your child in a safe setting. And maybe some fairy tales are best held until a child is a little older and can understand better what stories are. I thought it was cool to find out that the Disney fairy tales, which I loved as a kid, weren’t the same as the stories they were based on. I was much older by that point, and it didn’t ruin the “safer” versions either–it expanded the world of fairy tales.
Check out the rest of the article for lots of other good points about presenting fairy tales for modern audiences.