Monday, October 26, 2009

Protecting children from evil will not make the world less evil

Once upon a time, in a far away land called EwwKay, a a parenting site polled 3,000 parents about the stories they told their children. A significant proportion of them said they refuse to read certain traditional fairy tales to their Precious Widdle Darlings, finding the stories either too ominous or not politically correct enough.

Quoth The Telegraph:
Favourites such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Rapunzel are being dropped by some families who fear children are being emotionally damaged.

A third of parents refused to read Little Red Riding Hood because she walks through woods alone and finds her grandmother eaten by a wolf.

One in 10 said Snow White should be re-named because "the dwarf reference is not politically correct"

Rapunzel was considered "too dark", and Cinderella has been dumped amid fears she is treated like a slave and forced to do all the housework.

It is horribly sexist to tell little girls that their greatest happiness can be found in marriage to a handsome prince. Moreover, do we really want to scare the kiddies with stories of grannies who turn out to be big bad wolves? Should Cinderella not be rejoicing in the fact that her father married more than once - and how very lookist to notice that the two awful stepsisters are ugly.

More than a quarter of the parents surveyed now reject fairy stories in favour of books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I have nothing against this book, which is a good preparation for life in today's obese-obsessed world. It is a charming book, in which readers are invited to open flaps and see that the caterpillar has consumed a list of sensible fruit and vegetables. However, having read it about 250 times to my children (multiply all figures by three), I can say that it is extraordinarily boring and utterly unmemorable.

I am, however, happy to read fairy stories to my children for hours. Who are these parents who think that they are helping their children by withholding knowledge of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother's fascinating teeth, of Hansel and Gretel, of Cinderella or Rapunzel? These stories, which are replicated in almost all the cultures of the world, have been part of the shared experience of childhood for generations.

Many of them were collected up by the ingenious German brothers, the Brothers Grimm, during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The Grimms were interested in the origins of European languages. However, in the course of their research, they realised there were rich folk stories handed on from generation to generation in the country districts of German-speaking Europe. They found much which horrified them, just as it would shock social workers today - incest, child murder, bullying, abuse of all kinds. They found many stories of babies abandoned in the Black Forest villages, teenage pregnancies, and many abusive parents or grandparents among the boot-faced Teutonic peasantry.

The point is that the stories were not a way of covering these things up. They were a way of articulating fears and coming to terms with them.

Our national cultures, our sense of who we are as groups, are sustained by great myths. Our religions are a set of shared stories. Fairytales are also an absolutely vital part of our shared life together - only this time not as big cultural or national groups but in the most basic group of all: the family. Twenty-first century women have advanced beyond the fantasy that they are kitchen drudges who will one day turn into princesses by capturing the heart of the most handsome prince in the world, but that does not mean we would live richer lives without any knowledge of these stories whatsoever. The lessons given out by fairy stories are not bad ones, whatever some timid parents might feel

Goldilocks was idiotic to invade the three bears' house, and learnt a useful lesson about other people's property in the process.

The story of Snow White, even when sentimentalised by Walt Disney, remains one of the most enchanting ever told, but it is also useful. The apple offered by the witch versus the drug offered by a friend before a night out clubbing.

Rapunzel is, if I can use a tired word, "empowered" by her lovely long hair. The envious older woman tries to hold her back. How many daughters know that to be true when they think of the possessive part of their own mother's love for them? By literally letting her hair down, Rapunzel escapes and finds happiness. That is not just a fairy story for millions of girls who have escaped the constraints of a tyrannical mother/witch. It is what really happens.

Children are born into a world of fear. We do them no service by trying to eliminate that from their lives.  Denying the existence of evil is never healthy – children can come up against the real thing all too soon. How can you teach your child to avoid bad people if such terms are not even in their lexicon? How will these parents deal with their preteen wanting to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books?

I would like to think these parents will come to their senses and we will all live happily ever after. However, I suspect this is but a fantasy.

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