Thursday, 5 June 2014

Fairy tales are harmful to children? Sorry what?

“I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. 
“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable.”

Those aren’t my words. Don’t worry. I’ve not had a personality transplant overnight. But Professor Richard Dawkins,certainly has an opinion on the matter of childhood fairytales.

When I was a little girl I was engrossed in fairy tales. Whether they came from the old books that belonged to my parents when they were children, or they existed in nursery rhymes, or they filled my screen with Technicolor Disney.

They painted a world that was full of magic, dreams and, above all else, belief.

I’d listen, wide-eyed, on Christmas Eve, tip-toeing out of my bed to look outside to check for snowfall or a jolly man dressed in red and fur with a sack of toys flung over his shoulder. I’d exhaust myself with every effort of trying to stay awake. And I’d wake, excited in the revel of Christmas, but frustrated that, yet again, I had missed Father Christmas.

I’d wiggle baby teeth, much to my parents’ annoyance, until I could present them with a milky-white tooth. I’d eagerly tuck it under my pillow and wait, only to wake up to a shiny pound coin, as most other children did. The pound coin was great – you could buy a lot with a pound coin back then, namely 100 sweets if I’m being precise – but it was the tiny letter beside it that I was excited for. My tooth fairy was called Tiny, my brother’s Titch. And the tiniest scratches of handwriting would reveal the answers to the questions I asked the last time I lost a tooth.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t see the old-fashioned Disney classics as tales that encourage young girls to sit around and wait for men on stallions all day. Disney taught me most of what I know about love. And it was that magic, at the heart of every tale, that I took with me into adulthood.

Fairy tales, or even childhood tales, taught me of good and evil. They taught me to fight for what I believed in. They taught me to have dreams. They taught me what gingerbread was. To never take an apple from a stranger. They taught me not to lie, in case my nose grew bigger.

And admittedly they taught me that animals talked, and even sung. And that genies lived in magic lamps, hidden under sandy tiger heads. And that there were little girls in the world that were as tiny as your thumb. And that you could get eaten by a wolf and still live to tell the tale.

But my God, it was a bloody brilliant time in my life.

To believe in something is a truly wonderful thing. And something I believe (how ironic) leaves us as we grow older. As we grow older we begin to question things. We formulate opinions. We defy what we discredit. We frown and grump at things that we think are preposterous.

At the age of 26, I am often described as endearingly naïve. I have my head in the clouds and my heart on my sleeve, and I’ve heard it tens of times over. And maybe my love of fairy tales and fiction has perpetuated that. But I tell you something, I am polite, I am good, I am kind, I have done well for myself, I don’t need no Prince Charming, and sure, I’ve kissed a few frogs, though not of the amphibian kind, but I do, very much, believe in dreams, and in magic, and in wonder.

And it may not be the magic of pumpkins into carriages, and it may not be the dreams of “when I grow up I want to Kylie Minogue” (true story circa 1991), but I think there’s magic to be found when you look hard enough and dreams can be as big or as small as you’d like them to be. There’s magic in finding your true love (don’t roll your eyes – you sadist) and there’s magic in the breeze on a balmy night after a perfect day, and the beauty of a child’s laugh when you are the reason for the rumble of giggle erupting from their tummy. And dreams are found in slumber or in light – in the wishes you have for yourself, or the story you wake up with in your head.

I think, more than anything, my role as a parent is to pass this on to William, and make these fairy tales last for as long as they can. Because that carefree belief of childhood is over all too quick.

So you’ll find me writing tiny letters, from little fairies, in a few years time. And you’ll find me making bite marks in carrots and washing a mince pie down with a glass of sherry.

But I tell you something, if I see a bloke on my roof with a sack over his shoulder, I will probably call the police.

But I’m an adult, you see. And it’s far less fun.


  1. I think now a days (and even in my childhood many many moons ago) there ware a lot of debates about what would be/will be damageing your child if they do not get to encounter it/if they do encounter it.

    Personally I'm right now sat with a banging headache watching one of the few things there can make my 2 year old girl sit still, Cinderella, the Disney version. And I do not believe it will hurt her. Personally I think children will believe in ghosts, monsters under the bed, fairy godmothers, and Santa clause, but children will grow out of those believes, but they help the child make sense of a big world full of things mummies and daddies can't/won't explain.

    1. I think that innocence lasts for such a short period of time that I want to cling on to it, because you can't get it back. And I love Cinderella. What a good choice! xx

  2. Great post. I think as long as children grow up understanding it's a story, dreams, and a guide in the messages behind the tales, rather than being reality, then what's the harm. Most stories (fairy or not) are about morals and good over evil...they're essential to take into life .

    1. Thanks Emma! I think it's a lovely time in anyone's life and I don't believe for one second that it's harmful to believe in make-believe! It's so essential! xx

  3. A parent's goal is to "make these fairy tales last for as long as they can". I have to disagree with you on this one, Charlotte, though a lovely post. I think it's our job as parents to educate children about the REAL world and all its wonders. I'm not knocking imagination, it's innate, after all, but reality needs to come first in all its amazement. I don't think being an adult is less fun, at all, either! There is enough magic in the REAL world without adults making up stories. I personally love Shirley Hughes who is one of the few children's writers to show real children encountering really wonderful things and using their imagination to overcome real challenges. Far better than all the fairies, talking animals, magic powers etc in other books, and that's not my opinion, it is my children's!

    1. Thank you for your comment Anna. I think that's the thing about parenting - it's to be interpreted however best for the parent and the children. As an adult I'm learning more about the world, even now. And that's the great thing about growing up. But there's something precious, for me, about the simplicity, imagination and innocence of being a child. I know my life was far more carefree and magical then, than it now. Sometimes, I just have to look at William to remind myself to just let go and have fun again. Two year-olds are wise I think! And the adult comment was tongue-in-cheek - there's wine, romance and knowledge I never thought I'd have. It's a lot of fun. But my imagination isn't what it used to be. And sometimes, slipping into a make-believe world is good for my soul. I live real life, and that's how I experience it, but sometimes I like to visit another world and imagine. I've always been this way! And my son, while little, seems much the same! xx

  4. I always remember the quote by Einstein: "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." IMHO, fairy tales help children develop a vivid imagination, and learn about morals. I see no reason whatsoever why childhood should not be magical =)

  5. I think it's about protecting their childhood, allowing them the innocence to give them the courage to explore and to question. Depending on the child that might be with fairy tales and stories, or it might be gentle real life tales, whatever fosters their imagination. I think what I shy away from is the idea that only by telling the whole adult truth can we prepare our little ones for the real world.

  6. “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G.K.Chesterton

    Fairy Tales are where we experience the exciting and the interesting, it's where we slay the dragon and rescue the wounded. It's magic and dreams come true and what in the heck would ever be wrong with that :)
    They'll be adults for a very long time - they can be children first :)

  7. Fairy tales and stories are incredibly important to children's development though! It helps develop imagination and wonder and critical thinking (when adults engage them with the story, of course). And let's not forget that traditional fairy tales usually stem from folk tales that were told specifically to teach people lessons - the moral of the story! Everyone is more likely to engage and learn from stories rather than simply being told how to act or not (I was actually talking about this in class this week when I was teaching my kids about parables!). Dawkins usually has some good points, but he has totally missed the mark here.

    And if he has children, they must have had a bloody boring childhood! ;) xo

  8. Charlotte, your posts always make my day!


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