With International Children’s Book Day this past Sunday, the 2nd of April (around Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday), the Research Psychologist side of me was inspired to write an article about the role of fairy tales in children’s development.
Fairy tales provide a framework for how to deal with the challenges and conflicts of growing up and psychologists and psychoanalysts have long described their importance in a child’s emotional and social development.
Why fairy tales? Would it not work the same if we just talked to our children? Well, it depends on their age. Young children around 3-4 years of age experience fairy tales as real and not only would struggle to understand their meaning verbally, they would likely struggle to act them out. At ages 6-7, children tend to perceive fairy tales as too “make-believe”. Somewhere in between, there is a perfect balance between the experience of the reality of the story and its make-believe side, which allows children to enact the story and the feelings they experience as part of it.
In his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim, a prominent Psychoanalyst, talks about the importance of vicarious learning through characters’ stories, in particular when it comes to dealing with one’s own anxieties or fears. Such implicit and not conscious learning helps a child resolve their internal conflicts in a safe and developmentally appropriate environment without feeling overwhelmed.
Let me give an example.
All children struggle with difficult emotions and internal conflicts such as jealousy or anger. When first experienced, a young child does not have the capacity to understand these concepts symbolically and as such to name them. Instead, they might feel a surge of uncomfortable emotions and one way to make sense of them is to visualise them as something bad or scary, often in the form of monsters or witches. This visual representation speaks to their imagination; it is developmentally appropriate. As such, by identifying with the struggles of, for example, Cinderella, Prince Cinders, or Snow White, and living through their stories, a child can process their own emotions and learn that these can be resolved (e.g.., in this case, rivalry and feeling inadequate or struggling to fit in).
Through creative imagination, fairy tales facilitate the journey toward autonomy and independence. One such story is that of Goose Girl, a princess who was taken advantage of by others, as she set off on a journey without her mother. She struggles to stand up for herself until eventually, she does, and all ends well for her as justice is served.
According to Bettelheim, it is going through the motions of injustice and anger together with the character that facilitates developmental growth. He compares the fairy tale to the folktale The Little Engine That Could and whilst both conclude with the hopeful ending where good prevails, only the stories that take us through the whole journey of good and evil will have a meaningful impact, because they can resonate with a wider range of emotions experienced by every child. In Goose Girl, these are feelings of exclusion, injustice, anger, struggles of becoming independent, and eventually a triumph once the evil is punished and autonomy gained.
A different route to independence is also told in the story of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. Here, little siblings learn that greed won’t get them far and that it is through cooperation and selfless acts that they can win against the evil witch, and embrace self-growth.
Fairy tales and coping with adversities
Fairy tales are also used in therapeutic environments. They help process difficult emotions in safe and meaningful ways. For example, one study showed that children hospitalised in the oncology (cancer) ward benefitted from a fairy tale workshop in a number of ways. For example, through identifying with Snow White, they channelled their feelings of anger which they experienced as an aftermath of their illness, towards the evil stepmother who symbolised the illness, intrusive treatments, or medical staff that put them through those treatments.
Other stories, like The Three Little Pigs, helped children explore their anxieties about their sickness, which was symbolised by the wolf. It is also therapeutic for children to identify with the negative characters, as it can help them release the negative feelings they are experiencing, including anger, fear, or feeling threatened.
Fairy tales can serve a "mirror function". A study on eating disorders showed that it was easier to face and talk about one’s own difficulties when these were attributed to a fairy tale character as opposed to oneself. Through the characters’ victories, it was also possible to overcome one’s own struggles. As such, fairy tales served as an external vessel to therapeutically work through one's own struggles and find resolutions to them.
Fairy tales in modern times
Although old fairy tales carry universal teachings that can be applied in modern times as they talk about the experiences of growing up, some of them might feel out of date.
One such example is that of gender stereotyping, where female characters are often portrayed as weak, passive, and "waiting for their prince" to save them, whereas men’s characters are strong and heroic, which in itself is a topic for a whole other article. Luckily, more and more up-to-date fairy tales are being released like Prince Cinders by Babette Cole, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner, and Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo.
My favourite bedtime story was Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and although it’s an old tale, it conveys a message that I find very relevant in current times — the journey of growing up, curiosity, experimenting, finding your own place, and most of all, finding a good balance in whatever it is that I do (sometimes work in progress!). Although fairy tales play a part in facilitating emotional, social, and moral development, it is not the only way, so it’s perfectly fine if you struggle to recall your favourite fairy tale, or if you’ve never had one.