Are fairytales too scary for children?
Scary things happen in fairytales. H. C. Andersen's Tin Soldier is threatened by a rat and swallowed by a fish. Can it be harmful to a child to listen to such things?
There are lots of children's books that are nothing but sweet and kind throughout. Some of them - for example some of Elsa Beskow's books - are beautiful books that I'm fond of and use. It's perhaps easy for a parent to choose to read only the kind and easy books with their children. You can also likely find experts who recommend doing just that, and view traditional fairytales with a certain scepticism. But I think that the "all-sweet" books don't have the same purpose - or don't do the same job for the child - as for example "The Steadfast Tin Soldier". Hence, in my view, one should read both. Here is my reasoning:
- As parents, we want children to know and understand themselves and their feelings. It is an important and time consuming job to learn how to both listen to one's feelings and use them in a positive way.
- Scary things happen in life. Scary things happen around you - like earth quakes and storms, to your body - like illness, and in your mind - like anger, aggression and jealousy.
Thus, I believe it's not harmful - on the contrary, I think it is beneficial to a child to listen to a fairly tale with scary moments: it's a way to get to know feelings that one simply must know and master to live.
When we read fairytales for children, we first arrange the safest possible situation: on the lap or in bed, next to mom or dad. The time is dedicated to being together, time the parent enjoys and the child enjoys. It could hardly be a safer and more enjoyable framework.
Then we get the imagination going, and enter the story together.
Imagination is important. Imagination is the ability that allows humans to use even difficult and negative feelings in a positive way. When we read fairytales, we are in the realms of fantasy before the scary feelings occur. A child who is used to listening to stories might respond by suggesting ways to resolve or avoid the difficulties. For me, that is a sign that reading fairytales "works" - the child who can use its imagination to help the story's hero, might one day be able to use that same ability to help himself or others resolve difficult states or feelings?
(That said, even though I listen to, respond to and enjoy suggestions and statements from the listeners during reading, it might get too distracting. I and the other listeners must also be allowed to keep our focus on the story as it is. In that case, the response will be "yes, that was a good idea but now let's get on with the tale".)
It's important that it is suitably scary. I don't read "Kjśresten i skogen" (a Norwegian tale about a man who befriends and kills women) or the more gruesome Grimm stories at bedtime. If the children browse the book and want that story, they will be told "that's too scary to read in bed, we'll read that another day during daytime". But I emphasize: the good fairytales give you a "taste" of the scary, in a safe situation and an imagination-igniting context. I believe this is useful and necessary for a child's emotional and mental development.
Regarding "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", for me the very meaning of the fairytale is that he is so true to his own character, no matter what scary things happen around him. When I read the tale aloud, that is my focus. Even when he dies in the fire, he becomes a heart - a sad but final victory over evil. The children will of course not understand allegory - but they don't need to, because our brain and imagination is so constructed that it can store symbols which we can not interpret at the time, for later use. I think the tale still gives them an intuitive experience of the value of being true to themselves and their own characteristics.
Now, what about the violence? H. C. Andersen's soldier kills the witch to get the tinder box. Some stories are rather grotesque: the Norwegian hero Askeladden steals the troll's silver ducks, and proceeds to cut of the troll's daughter's head, boil her and serve the troll for dinner! Isn't such rather extreme violence harmful?
Well, I liked that fairytale a lot as a child and strangely enough my experience back then was very different from reading it as a grown-up. The violence was never graphical or gruesome in my imagination. This is why I confidently read it for my children, in the same way my grandfather read it to his grandchildren by the open fire some twenty-five years ago: in a calm way, without dramatising or calling attention to the violence, but without censoring it either. Such battle against trolls might well be or become an allegory of winning over depression or anger within one's mind, and when the story says that so extreme measures are required I guess the reason is that many people have experienced that.
Because the really old stories - those being passed from mouth to ear and from mind to mind for centuries before they ended up in books - are naturally the sum of many minds' experiences. It must be the case that the stories that many people found were enjoyable and useful had better odds for surviving their long journeys in time. As Sigrid Undset famously wrote, "the hearts of men are not changed by the flow of days" (my translation), and thus we can hope and believe that those old stories are also enjoyable and useful for our modern children - and grandchildren, once we get that far.