Not for kids? (Defending the Use of Fairy Tales)

I have heard (and said myself) that fairy tales were not meant as entertainments for children.

While I still believe most of the content needs to be filtered by discerning parents, as my kids get older (and, remember, they’re not very old yet) I’m finding and thinking that some of the tales aren’t as inappropriate for them as I once thought they would be.

I first started thinking this way when I hung on to Wiley and the Hairy Man despite my mother’s opinion of it. I can see that the book is intense, but I know my kids, and went though it with them until they were acclimated to the story.

More troubling to me are (several) “children’s” movies that are equally or more intense than this story and too often used to “babysit.” That is, entertain a child without the adult’s involvement.

I am not “above” using movies to entertain my children. That’s what they’re there for. That’s why I watch movies. I have a stash that I am comfortable doing this with.

My general complaint with children being left alone with the television is that too many people equate cartoon with child-friendly.

For this reason I won’t let my girls watch certain “childhood standards” and I will continue to delay those while I can.

I like the movies (well enough). I think they’re good storytelling and art and all that, but I don’t think their level of tension is appropriate for preschoolers.

One of the difficulties with movies is that all the images and emotions come rushing at you like wild animals, and there’s no time or context for processing one of them before being attacked or buried by the next one.

When reading stories– even the same ones the movies were made from– I have more control, the children have more context, and (therefore) more safety for the whole exercise.


Why do it at all if it requires special presentation to be “safe”? Because I enjoy them, for one thing, and I best meet my own expectations of reading aloud frequently if that first criterion is met.

Also because the stories, told in the right way, create opportunities to talk about real issues (this can be good or bad, depending on what issues are brought up).

Did you know the original Snow White (from the German, not Disney) was a child? She first angers her step-mother at the tender age of 7. There is nothing remotely passive or weak (common complaints about the tale) about a 7-year-old being taken somewhere by an adult she trusts, or being told what to do for her own safety (e.g by the dwarfs).

We have used the original Snow White (still edited slightly as we read aloud) to talk about the danger of disobedience; the reasons for adults’ warnings, designed to keep children safe.


I’ve also been told that children “back in the day” were treated as little adults. If this is the case, the stories may not have been kept from them at all– intense tales may have splashed on little ears as frequently as the adults’.

But even this may not have been as much of a problem as I once thought.

From watching my own children, and considering my own reactions, I am now convinced that the children’s lack of experience may keep them from hearing certain things. Or, at least, keep them from understanding them to the extent that could make them very disturbing.

This thought is based on the theory that we can only produce feelings we already know.

That is, while we may feel more than we may understand, we can’t create those feelings on our own. We have to have an experience to draw it from.

Think of how you describe chocolate. A listener who never tasted it could only image the taste in relation to the types of things he or she had tasted: the bite of a clove or black licorice, the semi-solidness of cheese, the sweet smoothness of ice cream.

Your uninitiated listener has all the same taste buds and other receptors as you, but while your mouth may water at the thought of an excellent chocolate, s/he cannot quite share your anticipation.

In the same way, until someone has felt the dizziness of “falling in love,” the relief of receiving needed forgiveness or the sorrow of losing a loved one to death, all descriptions of these things will lack depth and meaning.

Makes me think of the scripture that says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Without the context (Man being depraved and in need of a Savior), why should it make sense?

In a way, the child’s own innocence protects him or her from the heavier, potentially more volatile, elements of the story. Then, as the child grows in understanding, s/he is also safely settled in the larger context of the story and knows that the safe, happy ending will come.

And in the meantime, Mother (or Daddy) is guiding the journey, teaching the important lesson that scary times don’t last, and that parents can provide adventure and bring you safely through it as well.

5 thoughts on “Not for kids? (Defending the Use of Fairy Tales)

  1. It’s so nice to hear of other people who edit what their children here and see. I have never thought about their innocence prohibiting them from completely understanding what we see in movies, Thanks for that. My husband and I are pretty picky about what we let in our heads and although my daughter isn’t quite to the age that we have to worry about what she watches, I’m sure the list of approved movies will be very short. I used to think all episodes of certain shows were appropriate, but the more I watched the more I realized you can’t even approve shows unless you’ve seen that episode. My niece who is now seven, used to watch Dora regularly. We would let her sit in front of the TV while her mother and I were in the other room. Then one day we saw an episode that had a witch in it. That was the end of approving all Dora!
    I am just so glad that there are other people out there who find even cartoons inappropriate for their children! Thanks again.

  2. Actually, Jes, one of my concerns about movies/cartoons is that their visual element will get around the child’s natural “defense” of inexperience.

    With reading I can try to preserve it by choosing books with illustrations that show what I think is manageable, and allow me to modify the words if necessary.

    For example, the story of The Talking Eggs has an old woman removing her own head to comb her hair (creepy, not funny), and later a girl stealing the head from her. That is not ultimately clear in the pictures, so I’ve been able to read it and let the girls enjoy the fantastic illustrations while modifying the story to their level.

    That would not have been possible with a movie of the story.

    There are movies I think are fine, even if they’re not cartoons, it just comes down (as so many things do) to knowing your kids.

  3. Pingback: Untangling Tales » Blog Archive » Can We Show Them More Evil, Please?

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