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- By Deepshika Pasupunuri
Once upon a time, fairytales were a loyal bedtime aide — but now, many parents think it's time we retire them.
“[Cinderella] waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t. Rescue yourself! Obviously,” or so went the infamous outcry from Keira Knightly, one of many Hollywood parents who announced that they had banned their kids from watching The Little Mermaid and Cinderella. Even Richard Dawkins, the notorious British evolutionary biologist, publicly declared that fairytales were “harmful” and questioned why we teach them.
He may have backtracked some of his claims later, but the damage was already done.
What Makes Stories A Fairytale?
Before pulling out the pitchforks, it might be worth getting into what fairytales are and how the ones we know today came to exist.
Many of these stories, some barely the length of a page, weren’t really meant for kids; but were the literature of the lower classes or the aristocracy. In ancient times, many narratives were passed down through oral tradition. But when they fell into the hands of 19th-century British translators — a time when England was swept off its feet by fairytales — they became popular as children’s literature.
Today, many readers can instantly recognise a fairytale. Whether it’s tricking an evil stepmother, breaking a 1000-year-old curse, or a slain dragon. Motifs like this are characteristic of a fairytale, through which themes of jealousy, betrayal, love, grief, sacrifice, and greed are cast through a magical lens.
Far removed from realism, such a setting spins simple morals — like “going somewhere you aren’t ought to” — and turns them into the whimsical gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel discover. Readers soon realise, however, that not all is as candy-coloured as it seems.
Things Can Get Fairly Dark
Often, fairytales come with a dash of brutal realism. In the case of Hansel and Gretel, notions of child abandonment, an unrelenting famine, and escapism continue to follow the siblings throughout the plot.
“When we expose children to fairy tales, [we introduce them to] surprisingly dark narratives,” says Charlotte Reid, head of English at an independent school.
The benefit, she adds, is that “We do so, however, in the safe space of a mythical story world, and we teach them that even in terrible situations there are solutions and resolutions.”
Why Do Parents Want The Golden Goose Gone Then?
Fairytales have long been a treasure trove for parents, but it’s not to say they have no misgivings. Take, for instance, ‘Belle’ from Beauty and the Beast and it’s pretty clear why parents have a problem with it. A young girl who falls in love with the beast under very helpless circumstances. Or The Little Mermaid, where Ariel sacrifices her voice to gain the love of a prince.
Some blame modern adaptations for promoting harmful ‘damsel’ and ‘saviour’ roles to young girls and boys. But going to the source holds no comfort either, as many originals are too graphic or maintain the same fixation on beauty and light skin. It's no wonder that a British poll revealed that the number of UK parents who edited fairy stories as they read them aloud was more than one in four.
New stories have attempted to repair or reinterpret this, resulting in brilliant new tales that borrow from fairytales; while reflecting the diverse world that today’s children live in. Others, however, have gone a different route, abandoning the make-believe entirely. This includes shunning Pinocchio as it encourages children to lie, characterising The Ugly Duckling as a body-shaming advocate, and claiming that The Beauty and Beast is nothing but a case of Stockholm Syndrome.
But Kids Don’t See It Like Adults Do
These allegations are significant. But it's worth noting that many kids don’t latch on to these stories the way that adults do. Their fixation may not even be on Belle's love story. It could take them all the way back to the origin of the Beast’s curse. For example, why did the witch curse the prince so harshly for simply denying her lodging? We know the witch has supernatural authority, but why? How did she come upon this power, and what could its limits be?
As physical laws in fairytales become increasingly dominated by a magical state of reality, it allows children to ask questions and interact with the narrative in a way that realism simply cannot.
Whether it’s cruel curses, ostracised ducklings, or lengthening noses, fairytales are full of bizarre magical conventions that offer children building blocks rather than solely imparting a moral ‘lesson’.
Children’s author Sally Gardner says that kids don’t always identify with princes and princesses either, advising that “You can be anything – you can be the witch”. Moreover, she says that simply explaining the context to kids — that they were set in ancient times — would help make sense of the fixation with beauty.
Why Fairytales Matter
Textual imperfections like this can also be a great tool to encourage critical thinking. Some think it's best to wait till the kids are a bit older before introducing fairytales, but ultimately, they agree that children are far more advanced than we think and hardly need such neat curation.
Fairytales were a part of history everywhere, be it India, China, or Iran. For thousands of years, people across civilisations used these strange worlds to express their anxieties, ponder meanings, and make sense of the world around them. Simply put, they used stories to ‘figure things out’ — there’s no reason our kids can’t do the same.
With MerlinWand’s collection, magic like this is always within reach. Get an original storybook where your child can be their own hero, personalise their avatar, gender, and even pick the storyline!
After all, what better way to tell a story than to have your kid live it?
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