The other day I was talking to a friend about what she should get her niece for her birthday. I grew up loving books, so my immediate answer was a collection of fairy tales. The fantastical stories of fairies, mermaids, and evil witches brightened up my childhood, so it took me by surprise when my friend strongly disagreed.
"No Prince Charming ever came to save me," she said. "Children should read something more realistic."
My initial reaction was annoyance, but when I considered her point more carefully, I understood her argument. Though they have a certain magical quality, fairy tales also have obvious moral messages, some of which are deeply misogynistic or problematic in other ways. Parents and other adults have often read fairy tales to children to teach them morals and values. But these stories are also quite old and reflect the morals of their particular time. At some point, it becomes necessary to re-evaluate whether these morals fit with our modern world and benefit today's children.
Let's consider the messages embedded in the portrayals of women in these stories. The skinny, fair, gentle girls are princesses, while the older, more assertive women are witches or wicked stepmothers. According to many fairy tales, like Cinderella, 'good women' are complacent. They tolerate their hardships to offer themselves up as a deserving prize when Prince Charming comes to the rescue.
These stories cling to traditional gender roles and patriarchal values that many of us disagree with because they were written hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years ago in cultures very different from ours. But should we pass these messages on to our children if we disagree with them? Is tradition a strong enough reason to instil negative values in the next generation?
Albert Einstein is believed to have once said, "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." Though there are no concrete sources on the quote, studies have suggested that reading fairy tales can help children understand the world around them. They can help develop their imaginations and learn more about their emotions. They can help them learn new words and the pattern of language.
In many ways, fairy tales, with their stereotypes and simple plots, are like the alphabet that children must learn before moving on to more complex stories. Children have very limited experiences from which to form cognitive and emotional intelligence. By relating to characters in fairy tales, they can make sense of emotions such as sadness, anger, grief, and relief without having to undergo dangerous quests or unbearable tragedies themselves.
A study by Glenn Saxby in 2022 looked at the role fairy tales played in Australian preschool classrooms. The study found that fairy tales are an essential tool teachers use to communicate with children about more complex issues. Additionally, telling and retelling fairy tales encourages children to think more critically by contrasting the age-old stories to the values promoted in a more modern society.
In recent years, various scholars have spoken up about the need for more thoughtful consideration when reading or teaching fairy tales to children. Saxby states in his study, "Exploring these gender constraints within a fairy tale unit has the potential to offer teachers an opportunity to use these resources in a more equitable and inclusive way."
Fairy tales have outdated morals, but that does not mean they cannot serve a purpose. Fairy tales have been a core part of our global culture for centuries. They have been told and retold in books, movies, and animation for decades. At this point, there is no way for children to truly avoid them. Instead of shunning them, it may be better to use them as a tool to teach children to understand values and morals through a critical lens.
After all, if we want kids to understand why Cinderella or Peter Pan might not be the best role models, they need to hear the stories first.
This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.