Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sanitizing Fairytales

From the day my three boys were born, we read to them as part of the bedtime routine, no matter where we were in the world. Choosing books with illustrations was a must until they all began to read the words for themselves, which they accomplished before they started school at the age of 3½. Because we were reading to them in Welsh (a phonetic language despite what you may think when you see words such as llywyddiaeth), they learned faster.

One of the main publishers of Welsh children’s books is Gwasg y Drefwen (The Whitetown Press), which translates classic fairy and folk tales, as well as publishing many of the classic Welsh language stories.

My boys were also given opportunities to hear classic European stories such as Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous stories such as The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid. Of the two, these three rapscallions were particularly fond of encouraging me to read The Little Mermaid for this:

The wedding ceremony was a marvelous occasion, and that night the prince and his bride set sail for his own country. There was music and dancing on board, and the little mermaid danced as she had never danced before. Though her feet hurt with every step she hardly felt the pain, so intense was the pain in her heart.”

This is the real story—with consequences. The reason my sons wanted me to read this was because I always cried. Though they were too young to fully comprehend the sad end for the little mermaid who gave up the life she was destined to live, endured great pain and could never speak nor confess her love for him, they were exposed to depths of emotion and realities of life.

Andersen was no teller of happily-ever-after stories.

I stopped reading Gwasg y Drefwen books to them when the publisher presented stories such as The Three Little Pigs, not as tales from which children learn the basics of life without having to experience them. In the Drefwen version, the first two little pigs are never held to account for their lazy, make-do attitudes to house-building. They escape to their smarter, harder-working, forward-thinking, prepared brother who gladly takes them in and shelters them from the wolf.

So, the wolf, who is behaving according to his predatory nature by devouring the unprepared, lazy piglets, is denied the fruits of his efforts, teaching children that it doesn’t matter if you don’t take care of yourself, someone else will. It also teaches that the wolf is bad, despite his designated purpose in the natural order of the food chain.

For the same reason, I have lost respect for Disney. The animated film, The Little Mermaid, completely upends Andersen’s purpose expressed in his tale: be careful what you wish for.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have used storytelling to convey experience and life-saving truths. What Drefwen and Disney do is pander to the sensitivities of parents who don’t want their children to endure letdowns.

I confess that my children’s disappointment at not being invited to a classmate’s party was painful for me but, as their teachers pointed out, it was much better for them to learn how to handle disappointment early. Disappointment is a short-term low. A lifetime built on never experiencing failure is, at best, unrealistic and, at worst, detrimental to our children’s good mental health.

Fairytales sanitized to protect children’s tender feelings protect parents from having to explain the harsh realities of real life but as I told my sons, “Life is hard and then you die.” Or as the Navaho explained to their children, “Go too near the edge, you will fall and die.” Or as my mother told me, “Run with scissors and you’ll put your eye out.”

I still run with scissors but I take full personal responsibility for the results.


  1. Good points, Leigh! It's natural for parents to want to shield their children from the harsh truths of life, but they have to learn sooner or later, and I think it's better to encounter it in stories first, where they have some distance to process the events and are more prepared to meet reality head on.

    1. Karen, at least in stories (and especially when being read to by their parents), children can have scary experiences (and they do love scary stories!) in "safe places" - LOL!

  2. Hi Leigh--
    You make interesting points. I particularly like, "For tens of thousands of years, humans have used storytelling to convey experience and life-saving truths." I do prefer allowing children to read or hear about consequences.