Fairy Tales for the Very Young?

A few weeks ago there was a blog at Suburp about reading fairy tales to young children and whether it’s appropriate or not. You know the ones: “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood”-we’ve heard them all. When she writes about a fairy tale where  the “children are abandoned in the woods because the new wife of their father did not want to feed them, where an old woman wants to eat them and the girl then has to burn her to free herself and her brother… this is about as horrible as a child could imagine!” The blogger at Suburp claims that children can process these kinds of stories without being “traumatized for life” because “like generations before them, they understand the stories as they are intended: fairy tales teach us about life…. and the moral of it all is that it ends well for those who deserve it and bad for those who don’t.”

I agree with the blogger on one thing: that story is about as horrible as a child can imagine. Piaget has taught me that children ages two to seven (or so) are in the pre-operational stage, the stage where children are incapable of making truly logical connections in their thinking. Their imaginations can run wild. Young children actually aren’t able to understand fairy tales as they were intended: they literally don’t have that ability. One aspect of a child’s pre-operational thought is called concreteness, which means young children are able to understand real situations that they have actually experienced firsthand, but have difficulty with abstract ideas and things they have heard described in words only: like fairy tales.

Think about it. If you have trouble wrapping your head around what parts of a story are real and what parts of a story are not real, stories like “Hansel and Gretel” are scary. Even if the fairy tale isn’t violent – although most fairy tales have violence – there can still be some confusion about what is fantasy and what is real. “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” a fairy tale intended to teach children about greed, is a good example. The three brother goats run out of grass to eat and they need to cross a river into a new pasture. When the littlest one goes over the bridge first, a troll comes out from under the bridge and says he is going to eat him. The little goat says to wait for his brother because he is bigger, and the troll lets the little goat by. When the middle brother goat crosses the bridge, he says to wait for the eldest brother goat because he is even bigger. When the eldest goat comes along, he knocks the troll into the water with his horns and the brothers live happily ever after. The violence is relatively mild other than the troll threatening to eat the goats, but is it really appropriate to expect a child to hear that story and think to him or herself, “I shouldn’t be greedy like that troll or bad things will happen?” I don’t think so. Children will remember the troll and the dramatic ending.

Fairy tales are told all throughout the year, but as Halloween nears even more stories involving fantasy characters enter the lives of young children. When thinking about what to read to children during this time or what stories to tell, be conscientious of your intention. Stories with ghosts and witches can be scary, and may only confuse children about what is real. We want to avoid nightmares, and definitely being “traumatized for life”!

12 thoughts on “Fairy Tales for the Very Young?

  1. Janine

    I’m compelled to comment on the statement the suburp blogger made about how the moral shows that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people (paraphrasing, of course).

    Maybe that is the moral of the fairy tales, but is this what we want to teach our young children? What if a dad loses his job? What if a grandma gets cancer? What if a cousin gets arrested? What if something bad happens to THE CHILDREN? Are we supposed to accept or believe that the people we know, love, rely on are bad people because bad things happened to them (when it is often not the case)?

    Bad things happen to everyone. No one goes through life without having trials and tribulations. I’m not saying we should start preparing young children for the harsh realities of the world we live in. But, I also don’t think stories which promote a moral that may contradict what they experience is the best route, either. Is there a happy medium?

  2. TJ

    I’m sorry but I completely disagree with the above article. I have read my children (ages 3&5) fairytales from day one and I have seen no signs of trauma or drama. They enjoy the stories and understand that they are just that – stories. Not fact, but fiction. I think the author isn’t given children enough credit. Just like they understand that they cannot roam the woods alone like Dora and have amazing adventures, they also understand that they will not be abandoned in the woods to fend for themselves. I also agree with the commentor above – bad things happen to good people. The morals taught in fairytales can serve as a jumping off point for a larger discussion. Yes, there are consequences for certain behaviors but sometimes, stuff just happens.

  3. Daphne

    I have to say that having a vast age of children in my home at different times, to put “Snow White or 101 Dalmations” in for the 4 year old is fine, she does not FEAR the witch or Cruella however, the 2 and 3 year old covered their faces and looked horrified so I turned both off.

    Little ones do fear things, things we would never think of. Even Bambi scares the 2 year old. She loves Nemo (but is afraid of Bruce), she knows exactly when he is to appear and she jumps in my arms but she wants to watch it. She loves the reef but is afraid of Troy…same scenario, I would not even begin to tell her the “fairy tales” mentioned in this blog.

    When we wer little that is all there was really, now we have Dora, Thomas the tank, Wonder Pets etc, why should little ones see the scary fairy tales before they are old enough to realize its just a movie???

  4. Jen

    As a teacher, I have had preschoolers and toddlers. I currently teach ages 18 mos. to 3 yrs. In our classroom right now we are reading both Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Gingerbread Man. While just telling the children isn’t enough to help them process a story, isn’t that why we are there as teachers/parents? We can guide them to the lessons we want them to learn. Maybe my 18 mo. old can’t process the troll as bad and the goats as good even. But, we want them to learn that goats have hooves that make noises (which are fun to say) on a bridge. We provide a wooden bridge in our classroom to experiment with. We want them to learn that a bridge goes over water. We also want them to learn that goats butt with their heads and horns. In our classroom, one of our 2 1/2 year olds is headbutting friends. This can lead to discussions about how being butted hurts and we don’t do that to our friends. So, I disagree wholeheartedly that children can’t understand make-believe or get anything out of it. As to the reply by Daphne, television is a whole different ballgame and I would wager that the author would agree with me in that I would discourage television in general for 2 and 3 year olds. The studies on the hazards of television vs. creative play or outdoor play are limitless so while Dora, Thomas, and the Wonder Pets might not be scary they aren’t beneficial for their brain development or social skills either.

    1. Daphne


      When my child watches theses things, its via dvd and is her choice. If she is afraid of the “Fairy tales” I can tell her all I want to that its ok and its a story but until she is OKAY with that, I will not make her watch or use them as a teaching toy. To have her cover her head or jump into my lap when she is afraid is not okay. She is a very smart little girl, she goes to daycare and when givena test that the daycare does yearly she is well above her age level in everything. She can count adn speak in spanish and understand it from watching Dora and Diego, she know what jaguars eat, what their spots look like, etc. So yeah, she does benefit from them and rarely watches any of these things. That was just a comparison to MOVIES and Fairy Tales. (Sure she can listen to a fairy tale and not be afraid but she cant watch it and not). She is a new 2 knows and can recognize all her colors and shapes, knows her alhabet and knows her name, address and phone number and we did all of that with OUT fairy tales.
      She is new to daycare and is revisiting what she knows already, they have yet to teach her Once Upon a Times?
      I stand by my opinion that my 2 year old is not ready becasue she does know what to be afraid of but cant determine if its a story or real life right now.


  5. Jen

    I think my point is being misunderstood. I’m not saying you MUST teach children only using fairy tales. I am saying it can be done successfully. The blog questions whether children ages 2-7 can process these tales. I am saying that they can with the guidance of adults. Fairy tales can be experienced by children without being scary and although they may not get the author’s intended purpose they can take away their own new knowledge. Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Ugly Duckling, The Frog Prince…all great stories that I have used successfully in the classroom in a non-threatening way. In my last school, children were used to hitting the floor from weekly gunfire, drug dealers stood on street corners in broad daylight, and moms were abused by numerous boyfriends in front of the children. Was a picture of a wicked step mother going to frighten them? Not likely. In my current school, the children’s lives are much more safe and sheltered; but, in three years of teaching there I have not had one child appear frightened by a story book or one parent complain about the content. A recent article I read in Early Childhood News (www.earlychildhood.com) covers the topic of “Childhood Stress”. Fairy tales are not even on the horizon compared to the worries it lists. It even suggests reading as a way to reduce stress. Through stories, children get a chance to see characters in a stressful situation and learn how to cope. “Strega Nona” a fairy tale by Tomie dePaola (a book I have used in the past) is specifically recommended by them and she is a witch. While I agree with Piaget that children may not be able to comprehend the subjects (ie: not everyone can truly be a princess or that straw cannot really be spun into gold) I disagree with the blog’s overall theory. Fairy tales (in books) have a place in the lives of young children.

    1. Daphne

      We agree on some then, I do tell her the story of Goldilocks and the thee bears and the three little pigs and a few others. But if I were to try to tell her astory with a witch or wicked stepmom, etc, she would tell me no, not that one.

      She had learned through us discussin Nemo that he didnt listen to his daddy and that is why he got caught by the dentist, but she also knows that in the end he gets to go home (not always true in life) but I certianly dont want to tell her that at 2 years old.

      I truly believe it is the child that determines what is appropriate in these cases. She would love the billy goats gruff, I had forgotten that one.

      and again, my 4 year olds would love Hansel and Gretel and we could discuss it at lengths as to what it was meant to teach and they would get it.

  6. Dawn

    I so agree with this article. While some young children may be exceptionally adept at sorting reality and fiction, many are not. As children piece together their own understandings of the world around them, they are disavantaged by misinformation that adults may provide–and mostly because it is fun for them and not children.

    Children can be so fooled about the world by their own perceptions! These perceptions may be the developmental foundation for science, math, social studies or even social interactions.

    I would add Eriksen’s stages of social/emotional development to the ideas regarding Piaget. Children need to develop a sound sense of trust to venture out move to the next step–autonomy vs. shame and doubt–and then the next–initiative vs. guilt. From both the Piagetian stand point and the Eriksonian stand point, providing literature that gives them a foundation for adaptation is important.

    So, what is it that we really want our children to learn about the world around them? And, how should experiences be provided for children so that they build the knowledge they will need to adapt to an everychanging world? Young children love many things but does that mean we should give them to them?

    I believe that we need to be careful about all of the experiences we provide to very young children. They will be the basis for future learning and growth–cognitively and socially.

  7. Sadie

    Thank you for all the great comments and conversation around this blog. I have enjoyed reading through them. Keep talking!

    As a child I was told fairy tales. I am not saying that I think parents shouldn’t carry on traditions and stories from their pasts. Many cultures believe in story telling as way to teach young children different values. I am saying we should be more intentional about what stories we are reading or telling to children. For example, in a preschool classroom, it is more appropriate to teach children about how goats behave or what a bridge is used for by giving children actual examples versus telling them a tale. Young children’s (not ever single young child, but developmentally) reasoning is influenced by their tendency toward magical thinking. In a book I often use in my work (Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs published by NAEYC and edited by Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp), it says “Although individual difference in temperament play a big role in how fearful a child is, this tendency toward animism (giving lifelike qualities to in animate objects) characterizes preschool cognition as a whole and accounts for many typical fears among this group. The often believe also in enchanted powers of fairies and goblins and such and believe that magic accounts for things they can’t explain. How quickly they give up their magical beliefs depends in part on culture, information from adults and other children, and religion. Regardless of how early it begins the process of replacing magical thinking and more logical reasoning is gradual. Preschoolers will still be scared by scary stories and nightmares and monsters in the closet-and still believe in Santa for at least a few more years”.

    My point is, in order to encourage the development of logical thinking in young children, they need real life experiences and fairy tales are defiantly not real life.

  8. Kelsi

    When I was around 4, we watched a fire safety video at school. One of the scenes was about the stove, and featured a cartoon pot that got red when it heated up and looked angry. The lesson we were supposed to take away from it was not to touch or play with pots on the stove, but I did not get that at all–I was terrified of red pots, thinking they were out to get me! My child care provider had a red cooking pot, and I had a meltdown when she got it out to make her lunch.

    Many children take the things they see or hear literally, even when it is obvious to adults what the intended meaning is, and it can be very frightening.

  9. Dawn

    There is an article by Lillian Katz in the November/December issue of Child Care Information Exchange that really addresses some of this. The article is entitled, “Knowledge, understanding, and the disposition to seek both.” In it she says, “Let’s resist the temptation to introduce young children to topics such as mysteries or magic. On the contrary, we should be exposing children to important phenomena around them so that we ourselves are models of the disposition to wonder about the causes of things and to model or exhibit the disposition to pursue and eventually achieve understanding.. .We can be observable models of curiousity, striving to unravel a puzzling event.”

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