Due to recent discussions between myself and others, I decided to write a mini blog series consisting of two parts that addressed the importance not only of a child's imagination, but also the important role that fantasy and fairytales play in the life of both children and adults. Part one of this series focused on the imagination, while part two will focus on the virtues of fantasy and fairytales.
For starters, though, I would like to draw upon the words of a handful of great men and women who will say, far better than I, why the use of fairytales is so important for the mind of a child.
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.” ― Albert Einstein
“Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ― G.K. Chesterton
“Can you not see that fairytales, in their essence, are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is-what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is-what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairytales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos. ” ― G.K. Chesterton
“Classic fairytales do not deny the existence of heartache and sorrow, but they do deny universal defeat.” ― Greenhaven Press
“In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairytales should be respected." ― Charles Dickens
“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world, and eldest sons who waste their inheritance, that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” ― Alasdair Maclntyre
You know, I find it somewhat amusing that people impose upon children the mind of an adult. We often not only believe, but expect, our children to understand abstract concepts based off of the fact that we, as adults, are able to comprehend abstract concepts. However, not only is this unfair to our children and young people (for science has shown that even through the teenage years we struggle to understand abstract concepts), it also means we don’t give them the tools they need in order to develop abstract concepts in their life. Abstract concepts such as morality and virtue.
To demonstrate this theory, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget put forth a series of tests to children. Perhaps the most well known test was that of the two water beakers. Piaget demonstrated that if you show a child two beakers of water, one of which is tall and thin, the other short and fat, and ask the child which beaker contains the most water, the child will say 'the tall one', even though they both contain the same amount of water. The reason behind this is because the child is unable to understand an abstract concept such as conservation of volume (the ability to realize that something may have the same volume, even though it is a different shape) at this point in their life.
Similarly Piaget demonstrated that if you roll a piece of clay into a sausage shape, show it to a child and then roll it into a ball, the child will say that there is more clay in the sausage shape. Furthermore, to finish his studies, he demonstrated that, if you present a child with a row of five buttons spread out and a row of five buttons close together, the child will say that the spread-out row contains more buttons.
Why? Because children learn concretely. So if you take an abstract concept like heroism and try to teach it to a child, they aren’t going to get it. But if you flesh out the concept of heroism through the telling of a knight who goes to slay the dragon in an effort to save the young woman who has been sacrificed to the monster, despite great peril to himself, the child gets it.
The renowned psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim said this in his book The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales (1975). "It hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our history that children need a moral education that teaches not through abstract ethical concepts, but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful. The child finds this kind of meaning through fairytales."
Which leads us into our topic of discussion today. Fairytales and fantasy and the importance they play in the life of both child and adult.
As we learned in our last blog post, the imagination of an individual is incredibly valuable, especially to a child, because up to age 12, a child’s right hemisphere of the brain, responsible for creativity and emotion, is dominant. Their thinking process goes through emotionally vivid images because their brain is still developing the ability to process truth through the left side of their brain, the logical side (which is perhaps why you can’t logically argue with a child).
So, if the right side of our brain is the side that children learn from, and the side that children and adults take truth to the heart with, it only seems natural, I would think, that you would want your child to take to heart truths like heroism. However, in order to take an abstract concept and teach it to a child, you have to convert that truth into something that the right hemisphere of their brain can understand.For hundreds of years parents did just that. They didn’t need science to tell them that their child would learn abstract truths best through the right side of their brain. They were smart enough to observe that on their own. Which is why millions of children throughout history grew up on fairytales as the primary story told to them, specifically during the Victorian era.
But not everyone believes in the importance of fairytales anymore. In fact, twenty five percent of parents recently surveyed said they wouldn’t read fairytales to their child because they didn’t teach a good lesson (I’m still trying to figure out which fairytales they’re reading) or were too scary.
The survey also revealed that a quarter of parents polled wouldn't consider reading a fairytale to their child until they had reached the age of five because the stories prompt too many awkward questions from their offspring(sounds like somebody is trying to avoid answering real-life questions).
One third of parents won’t tell their children about The Gingerbread Man, as he gets eaten by a fox. Thirty five percent of parents feel that the fairytale story Queen Bee is unsuitable for children because it features a character named Simpleton (guess they never read Pilgrim’s Progress). Also noted was that parents wouldn’t read Goldilocks and the Three Bears anymore because it teaches children to steal. The most shocking of all, however, at least to me, was that 52 percent of the parents said Cinderella didn't send a good message to their children as it portrayed a young woman doing housework all day.
As I read through the list of reasons why parents wouldn’t read fairytales in general to their children, or they wouldn’t read a majority of them, I felt like the only logical conclusion to come to was the fact that parents have lost their reasoning skills.
Within the last five years we have seen a resurgence of interest in fairytales, fantasy, and sci-fi, due to many movies and tv shows recently released, but we are also seeing far more resistance to it within the Christian church then was have seen in past times. Perhaps the fact that Christian parents are begging for direction in how to influence the moral character of their children and young people is why I find it so shocking that they reject the tried and true methods that parents (Christian and non Christian alike) have been using for centuries.
Flannery O’Conner, an important voice in American literature, said this: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."
A simple yet profound truth. See, the great fairytales and fantasy stories that have been passed down for so long capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of struggles between good and evil where characters must make difficult choices between what is right and wrong. But in our modern age, despite the overwhelming evidence that modern parents are failing to transmit morality effectively to their children, we still persist in teaching ethics as if it comes from a "how to" manual for successful living. We are presenting moral principles, and even the virtues themselves, as if they are practical instruments for achieving success.
Much of what passes for moral education fails to nurture that which children learn from best. Their moral imagination. By forgetting that our children are right brain dominant, we forget that only a teaching that awakens and enlivens their moral imagination will persuade that child that courage is the ultimate test of good character, or that honesty is essential for trust.
You see, mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture virtues in children (not that we should forget instruction is a key element, but we will talk more on that later on) on its own. As stated before, you can’t just tell children they shouldn’t lie. That’s a logical statement that’s not really going to sink in. But, if you read to them the story of the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, your child will be able to see, in a concrete way, why lying is not only wrong, but has devastating results.
See, by presenting truthfulness in a way that stirs the imagination, this moral truth (lying is wrong) transcends from the left side of the child’s brain to the right side where it can be taken to heart. A good moral education addresses both sides of the brain. You tell the child they shouldn’t lie, and then you show them why. This is why stories are such an irreplaceable medium for the moral education of character in children (interesting to note is the fact that the Greek word for character literally means an impression, suggesting that moral character is an impression stamped upon one’s self).
You see, great fairytales and children's fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue in ways that children can understand. In fairytales virtue glimmers and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. Fairytales teach us that courage to rescue the innocent is noble, whereas cowardice that betrays others for self-gain or self-preservation is worthy only of disdain. Fairytales say plainly that virtue and vice are opposites and not just a matter of degree.
In essence, fairytales make us face unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.
Which brings me to one of the most popular reasons many parents don’t like fairytales and fantasy, and that is because they feel that, instead of letting our children read “unrealistic” fairytales, we should have them read "practical" and "realistic" stories — stories about the lives children live today that easily lend themselves to distillation into useful themes, principles, and values.
What is amusing in this argument is that fairytales and modern fantasy stories do project fantastic other worlds, but they also pay close attention to real moral laws of character and virtue. Part of the wonder of fairytales and fantasy stories is the fact that it can transport the reader (child or adult) into other worlds that are fresh with wonder, surprise, and danger. They challenge the reader to make sense out of those other worlds, to navigate their way through them, and to imagine themselves in the place of the heroes and heroines who populate those worlds. The safety and assurance of these imaginative adventures is that risks can be taken without having to endure all of the consequences of failure; the joy is in discovering how these risky adventures might turn into happy outcomes.
The problem with realistic stories is that children feel like they are reading a story about someone else’s life. Most children have an understanding that they can’t have the life of another realistic human being. But when they read stories about other worlds with imaginary people, their brain transports them to this other world, by way of their imagination, so that the child can now experiences things vicariously through the life of the main character. Thus, while fairytales are not a substitute for life experience, they have the great capacity to shape our moral values because we can experience them through the life of our heroes.
For example, after a child has read C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, their moral imagination is bound to be stimulated and sharpened. These stories offer powerful images of good and evil and show how to love through the examples of the characters that the child has come to love and admire, and thus desires to emulate. The stories help spur the child’s imagination to translate their experiences into established elements of self identity and into metaphors they will use to interpret their own world.
Which means that children, as they read fairytales and fantasy, grow increasingly more capable of moving around in their own world with moral intent.
See, part of our problem as adults is that we think that virtues should be dry and lifeless data of moral theories. We turn ethics into something similar to the hygienic rules kids are taught in health class. Virtues, morality, and ethics can take on a life that attracts and awakens the desire within us as individuals to own them for ourselves, if we let them. Our goal in life should be to see our children/ourselves turn into mature human beings able to stand face to face with the truth about themselves and others, faults and all, and desire to correct those faults in order to emulate goodness and truth wherever it is found, be it the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, the Chronicles of Narnia, or fairytales like The Snow Queen and Rumpelstiltskin (to this day I’m still not sure why this particular fairytale capture my imagination so completely).
There is a reason why, when I trained for my scuba certification, I didn’t get to just take all the textbook knowledge I had learned and jump into the ocean. Scuba diving can be very dangerous. You have to know what you are doing and be aware of your surroundings at all times, if you want to come back to the surface alive and uninjured. So, before I could actually scuba dive, I had to take the knowledge I had learned and apply it in a swimming pool so that I actually learned beyond a head knowledge how to respond correctly in certain situations.
In like manner, fairytales help enable children to respond correctly to a moral dilemma when one arises. They are able to take what they know (that lying is wrong) and apply it in a way that transcends head knowledge, so that they then know how to respond to real life situations correctly.
Furthermore, fairytales are far more realistic than books like Stellaluna. Which is actually an issue that many modern parents have. One of the reasons why modern parents didn’t want their children reading fairytales and fantasy, as brought to light by the above mentioned survey I read, is the fact that Fairytales were scary and often portray dangerous and frightening experiences through which the hero subjects his/her self.
Well, guess what? Children need to discover in a safe environment that bad things happen to everyone. Because you know what, it’s true! No one in life is immune from challenges, so if anything, fairytales help convey a sense of reality that books like Curious George or Winnie the Pooh (and I confess, I do love the characters in the Hundred Acre Woods!) do not. Honestly, should we be building emotional muscles so our children can hang on during tough times, or should we be shelter our kids from the true realities of life, leaving them so weak they can’t handle anything? The reality is fairytales build emotional resiliency. They are scary at times, and the good guys do have to go through bad experiences, and sometimes things are dark, so I’m not going to contradict that. But honestly, how often is the real world that way?
So, you may be sitting there thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but I don’t remember fairytales really having all that much morality and virtue in them”. And because you might be thinking that, I’m going to give you an example, and I’m going to use one of the most beloved, and perhaps well-know, fairytales of all times as my example.
Beauty and the Beast.
Let’s break down some of the elements of the story.
At the beginning of this fairytale we are told that “a very rich merchant had three daughters, all of whom were extremely handsome, especially the youngest; so she was called `The little Beauty.'"
Right off skeptics will pound on this because of the materialistic and image focused society in which we live, but I’m going to ask you all to calm down and wait. There is a reason why this line in the story exists.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that nothing more is said about Beauty's physical attributes. Instead, the story draws our attention to her virtuous character. Beauty's moral goodness and her inner beauty is contrasted with her sisters' pride, vanity, and selfishness — their inner ugliness, if you prefer. Although Beauty's sisters were physically attractive they "had a great deal of pride, because they were rich. They put on ridiculous airs and laughed at their sister [Beauty] because she spent her time in reading good books." By contrast, Beauty was charming, sweet tempered, and spoke kindly to the poor.
Fast forward a bit and Beauty is now a prisoner in Beast’s castle because she loved her father so much she was willing to give her life for his. And, like any virtuous young maiden, Beauty tried to make the best of her situation. Very quickly Beauty is able to see the virtues in Beast that lie hidden beneath his monstrous appearance. At her first supper in the monster's castle, Beauty says to Beast, after he presses her to revile his physical appearance: "That is true, I do find you ugly, for I cannot lie, but I believe you are very good-natured." And when Beast tries her patience with his repeated self-deprecatory remarks, Beauty responds emphatically: "Among mankind there are many that deserve that name [Beast] more than you, and I prefer you, just as you are, to those who, under a human form, hide a treacherous, corrupt, and ungrateful heart."
Now, look back to the beginning of the book where it talks about the beauty of the three sisters. The two sisters are very beautiful, but we learn that their physical beauty masks the ugliness of their hearts, paralleling the irony that the Beast who is repulsive physically is good and virtuous within. Beauty and the Beast teaches the simple but important lesson that appearances can be deceptive and that what is seen is not always what it appears to be.
Similarly, this great fairy tale also bids us to imagine what the outcome might have been had Beauty's sisters been put in her position? No doubt they would not have recognized or appreciated the goodness beneath Beast's monstrous appearance. Nor does it seem at all likely that they would have made Beauty's courageous choice in the first place.
Beauty and the Beast embraces one last important moral truth which I think we should take note of: a person's decisions in life will define what kind of person they become. At the end of the story, the "beautiful lady" who has visited Beauty in her dreams appears at Beast's castle and brings with her Beauty's entire family. The fairy then says to Beauty: "come and see the reward of your judicious choice; you have preferred virtue before either wit or beauty, and deserve to have a person in whom these qualifications are united: you are going to be a great queen."
Beauty's sisters, however, are unhappy in their marriages because they chose their spouses solely upon the basis of good looks and wit. Through greed, jealousy, and pride their hearts have become like stone. So they are turned into statues, but retain their consciousness that they might behold their sister's happiness until they admit their own faults.
So, to all those reading, I submit this question. How are modern children’s stories like The Hungry Caterpillar or Pippi Longstoking (which I love, so I’m not knocking the books) better for our children than a fairytale like Beauty and the Beast which is saturated with morals, virtues, and ethics? Can you give me one realistic modern story that has a better message for young girls than that of Beauty and the Beast? None come to mind for me.
However, before the pendulum swings too far the other direction, let me clarify a couple things. While I am, obviously, a huge advocate of fairytales, fantasy, sci-fi, and fiction in general, that doesn’t mean that all fairytales, fantasy, sci-fi, and fiction in general are good. Parents and adults should use caution and discretion in what they allow their child, or themselves, to consume. Just because it’s a fairytale or fantasy, doesn’t mean it’s good.
In addition to that, I also strongly believe that no parent should just give their child a book to read (notice I said child, I have an issue with parents micromanaging their child’s reading habits after a certain level of maturity, but that is a subject for another time… perhaps) even if it is a good fairytale. If you wish to cement the truths your child reads in their fairytales you have to put forth some effort. Like I said early on in this post, a good moral education addresses both sides of the brain. You shouldn’t focus solely on the right side of the brain, anymore than you should focus solely on the left side. Both are important.
So, after your child (or you and your child together) read a story like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, talk with them about the story and the morals therein. It is a fool who thinks that children are naturally going to take away from a story everything you want them to. Fairytales were written in a time period where parents actively were involved in the development of their child’s moral compass. Thus fairytales were a tool, not the instructor.
During the development of your child’s moral compass you should always be at the helm teaching and instructing them. However, because you are an adult with a full developed logical mind (we hope!), you often need help breaking things down to the child’s natural learning capabilities. Which is where the fairytales came into the picture early on. The fairytales gave the child the building blocks to be able to understand the moral of the story, and it was up to the parent to help the child arrange those building blocks correctly, as well as not let them forget a building block hiding under the bed or forgotten in a corner of their mind.
To be honest, our biggest problem with today’s society is not the material available to children. It is the fact that parents are letting their kids take the wheel of their moral education.
In closing, I want to add one last bit of knowledge from the great G.K. Chesterton. When asked about whether fairytales led us towards a belief in something, Chesterton said this: “if there is a story there must surely also be a story-teller”. A great truth about not only the fictional world, but also our own, said in such a way that even a child could understand.