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”!