Are Fairy Tales Good Mothering?
I remember the moment I saw my oldest daughter for the first time. I remember the quiet and the stillness and the soft lighting. Almost in the same instant (and in the years that followed), I was possessed by the conviction that my primary job was to protect her innocence from a world that would wish to tarnish it for its own gain.
This belief found its way into our reading life rather young, as I was faced with the decision of the types of stories I had wanted her to hear and that I had wanted to shape her. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I had a very firm belief that the stories we hear help to shape us and our lives.
I ended up finding some great books for her, books that could help instill virtue while avoiding too much that would startle the soul. We loved reading through them. And to be honest, I largely avoided the more original depictions of fairy tales because they were so dark and scary, and I didn’t want those realities of life to enter her world.
But the real question is: What is the best way to protect her? What kind of education will form her?
Basically, instead of being a tiger mom who tries to push her child or a helicopter mom who tries to micromanage her child’s life, a lawnmower parent tries to go before her children in all things in order to smooth out the troubles and make the path easier.
This is what I was rather purposefully trying to do with regards to the stories I was telling her.
But there’s a problem with lawnmower parenting... it doesn’t work. We absolutely cannot shield them from all harm. Bad things will still happen. Sadness and fear and grief will still make their way into little hearts and little lives. When parents clear the way from all obstacles, their children are never been given the opportunity to develop the skills needed during the more difficult seasons of life. They face a world they are utterly unequipped for.
What I’ve come to realize over the course of the last few years is that a balance needs to be struck. My initial instinct was partially correct. We do need to protect them. We cannot just throw them into a world of very real dangers without preparing them. I was correct in my belief that we need to expose our children to the dark side of reality at age and developmentally appropriate ages. Not to shield our children in age-appropriate ways is, well, abusive. Backing off of our role as gatekeepers is not an option. Absolutely not an option. Yet, we also can’t sit a 5 year old down in front of the evening news and hope for the best. And so where is a parent to turn?
I propose that some of the answer is fairly tales.
Fairy tales are part of our children’s cultural inheritance. Our children feel a sense of ownership and investment in those stories. But more than that, as much as simple, delicate stories protect innocence, fairy tales and other darker stories can develop resilience.
I pray none of our children ever finds themselves in a house made of gingerbread and a cranky, carnivorous old lady. I hope they never climb a beanstalk into the heavens and come across a giant that wants to roast them. I surely hope they never hide away in their room for sixteen years to protect themselves only to fall victim to a sharp point on the end of a spinning wheel.
But fairy tales... they help children figure out how they might respond when faced with darkness.
Would they be brave enough to fight the dragon? ...or stand up to the bully? Would they be savvy enough to sniff out the deception of the wolf? The manipulations of That Guy? Would they avoiding catastrophizing better than Henny Penny did?
Imaginations are the gifts our children have that help mitigate the effects of their scant experience. Fairy tales help them immerse themselves in the imagination, and it gives them heroes to look up to and lives to aspire to. It’s hard to find someone we admire who hasn’t been through and overcome trials, and that’s because those trials and that ability to overcome is precisely what makes a person heroic. After all, Snow White with no wicked queen is merely a girl alone in the woods with a bunch of little friends and animals. Cute, but not a framework to help a child shape their choices.
Our kids will face trials. They need to develop skills and insight to help them with these trials. We also need to protect them and their innocence from the harsher realities of life until their brains and their hearts and their souls mature to a level that they can handle it. Perhaps fairy tales are the perfect means by which to marry these two concepts in our own parenting.
Amanda Knapp is a wife, mother, writer, knitter, and reader of books. She earned her BA from Marquette University and her MA in English from Northern Illinois University. She credits reading and writing with helping her remember who she was after many years in the trenches with toddlers and infants. She currently spends almost all of her time homeschooling her four daughters and chronicling her thoughts on her website and Instagram page. Check her out--she would love to say "hi!"