Do fairy tales still count?

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“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed,” said G. K. Chesterton. Jungian interpretation is that fairy tales teach children how to deal with basic human conflicts, desires, and relationships. Regardless of the modern day criticism on fairy tales, we still have them in plenty. They are forever popular. That is also why the great Albert Einstein himself has said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” Illustrated and retold, in both English and Sinhala, do the age-old fairy tales still count in this day and age? Some may argue that these fairy tales establish destructive stereotypes. We wanted to explore whether fairy tales still hold the same charm or validity in a totally different world.

Limitless imagination

To discuss about the psychological impact of fairy tales on children, we spoke to Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatric in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa. “Fairy tales help a child as young as 2 – 7 years, who are still in their preoperational stage of growth, to develop their imagination. Such stories can be attractively told and presented that they make a very positive impact in terms of memory skills and imagination,” Dr. Chandradasa said.

Lot of people may think less about the importance of imagination. In a digitally dominated era, there is less regard for what a book can offer. At the first glance, one might feel that a book has little to offer. However, the truth is far different. Dr. Chandradasa further explained how imagination helps the young child to shift and keep moving through the past and future at the same time. “This make-belief world need not be logical. It does not have limits or boundaries. They need not bother about time, cause and effect and there are no worries in this freedom of mind. They learn to understand many things through the situations provided,” he said.

Fairy tales are comforting

Dr. Chandradasa pointed out something we often forget. Children come from different backgrounds and each person’s life is unique. Fairy tales can be a very comforting to such children. “To a traumatised child, these stories can be a way of coping. Things might be far from rosy at their end. But the magical, happily-ever-after that is given in the story might be that little drop of hope such a child yearns for,” he explained. Surely, even today we can recall some of the figures and mental pictures from the good old childhood which have lasted in our heads all these years.

One fantasy, one moment of triumph, one battle of defeating evil, a fairy who did not give up on you; we have all had such an incident, such a person transcending from those fairy tales to real life. Though nobody came with stardust or fairy wings, we have certainly had the monsters, wolves and snow storms. We have solved Frozen puzzles. No matter what they say about not being the passive damsel in distress, most of us have been in that situation. Maybe we did not have a Prince Charming coming for our rescue but the tales taught us it is alright to fall. Especially when you are child, it is a matter of surviving from one day to the other, one situation to the next. That is where fairy tales come in.

‘You are enough’

Dr. Chandradasa also mentioned the latest animation movies which have brought out characters such as Fiona and Shrek where appearance does not matter. “You do not always have to be your own fan. There are times when we do not even like ourselves. But the real message is that you are enough,” he said. Fairy tales also offer you hope to transform for the better. There are modifications made to match the present. “These books also deal with the Freudian teaching of ‘unconscious, hidden, primary drives’ such as aggression and sexual desire. If there is pent up or unexpressed aggression and so on, it leads to frustration. They remain with us unless we do not know how to deal with those. Fairy tales show how such emotions can be dealt with. Their presentation is unique and attractive. They are subtle and hence you do not feel as if you are being preached or advised. We see them transforming to wizards or knights and expressing this aggression. That is also quite important,” Dr. Chandradasa assured.

 Fairy tales have slight differences depending from where they derive from. The West and the East may deal with emotions or situations differently. Protagonists may be defined with certain concrete physical characteristics. But now these tales are open to interpretations and their portrayal has undergone very significant changes. “The modern presentations have fewer allocations and more resources. Stereotypical thinking and discrimination are challenged. Our unconscious aggression in our primary drives keeps wrestling in us. Unless we do something about these issues, they will affect us negatively. The West is making conscious changes.”

Parents have a big role

Dr. Chandradasa said that a child whose logical thinking is yet to develop, will think that optimum self-worth is obtained by being tall, slim, and blonde or fair-skinned. “This is where parents play a big role. Unless they are taught the right thing, the children will reach their teenage and try to impose those stereotypes on themselves. One has to know that they do not have to be beautiful all the time, 24×7. Girls in their real world will be fooled into take this as the ‘truth’. A movie such as Despicable Me challenges this ideology.”

This does not mean that one should shy away from the traditional fairy tales. But according to Dr. Chandradasa when reading or watching the conventional fairy tales, the best is parental participation. “Psychologically, children from 7 to 12 years are in the ‘Concrete Operational Stage’. The best is for a parent to sit with the children and explain. Books give ample space for discussion. Children should be explained that the possibility of a perfect, fair, blonde, beautiful damsel in distress is definitely not what a girl is supposed to be. You can be a tom-boy of a girl working for a PhD and still be beautiful and great. This even matters to boys. You need not be Avengers, Captain America or look-like celebrities.” Dr. Chandradasa took the example of Big Bang Theory. “It has three girls and four boys who are nerds. They do not want to look handsome and trendy, have six packs or drive the latest car. But we have Sheldon and Amy doing PhDs. That is a different kind of attractive. So, one needs to sit down with children and discuss about incorrect body images and unrealistic expectations about appearance,” he concluded.

However, Dr. Chandradasa elaborated on the importance of reading the book. “In terms of developing a child’s creativity, books play a major role. In a movie, everything is given. Your child is only a passive receiver. But fairy tales in books leave limitless space for your imagination. We all imagine according to our experiences and what we already know and like. That way, when you read, you get to create your own character. With or without a sketch found in the book, your imagination works freely to change that picture according to your liking,” he said.

What mothers say

There is no surprise why fairy tales remain popular. There is nothing like creating your own version of a fairy tale in your head. Your Rapunzel and your daughter’s Rapunzel may look far different from each other. However, we wonder whether there still is a readership for fairy tales. Technology has invaded every possible field and do children read fairy tales nowadays? Surely, parents still opt to buy fairy tales for their children. Do parents think the stories promote negative stereotypes? Or do they impact their children in a good way? We asked the questions on social media. “Yes, they most certainly do,” replied Nishu Gunawardana. “My almost 3-year-old loves stories and fairy tales. She wants me to read to her every night and sleeps with her favourite book. Though her favourite tale changes from time to time, as of now it is the Three Little Pigs.” In answer to the last question she said, “I honestly feel we think too much about stereotypes and what not. When my grandma was reading me stories, she did not worry about stereotypes. She was just keeping me entertained.” For her, the impact is all about fond memories.

Fazmee Fareed, a mother of two said her five-year-old daughter and one-year-old son love fairy tales. Fazmee reads out to them and she feels their imagination is improved and they get introduced to letters and new words at an early age. “Her favourite is Hansel and Gretel. Where stereotypes are concerned, more than my daughter it is I who hated the wicked queen and how Snow White was treated.” Fazmee said her daughter asks too many questions but she loves the stories. “She gets the idea that there are both good and bad people out there. I love the time we spend, reading together,” Fazmee said.

Responding to our social media queries, Namrata Gulati Sapra from Delhi, India said, “My child is 20 months old. He does not understand stories yet, but he is fascinated by the pictures of the books. I sometimes narrate fairy tales to him at bedtime. He is captivated by my voice modulation and audio effects. He likes the cartoon version as well. After watching a teddy bear wear a bib, my son who was adamant about not wearing a bib started wearing his bib,” Namrata wrote.

Irushi Perera said her niece loves fairy tales and she herself and her sister would read out to the child. “Cinderella and the Elves and the Shoemaker were the favourites. She used to have so many questions. ‘Why does Cinderella need to dress up for the party if she has no money?, ‘Does her prince like her only when she is dressed up?’ she asked me,” Irushi said. However, answering on stereotypes, Irushi said her niece definitely thought the princesses to be beautiful only if princesses were slim and fair.  

Tania Fernando from Melbourne could not think why anyone would hate fairy tales. She reads out to her children. Peter Pan, Snow White and Pinocchio are the favourites. “I feel stereotypes are only in the minds of the adults. Children only see the magic and the beauty of the story which encourage them to be imaginative. Fairy tales help them understand that imaginative world is different from the real. My son says that he knows that the characters are not real and that it’s just a story from someone’s head.”

Dilini Suraweera has no doubt that her little boy is completely in love with fairy tales. Ugly Duckling, Wizard of Oz, and Beauty and the Beast are her son’s top favourites. “Sometimes he would imitate the characters. I do not think it is a bad influence. I believe the stories have a positive impact. He loves to build an imaginative world and it makes him very creative.” Going by all this there is little doubt that fairy tales continue to beautify the lives of children. 

By Priyangwada Perera