Why children need – and adults misread – fairy tales
By Ursula Carlson
For the Appeal
It was spring, but I lay listless on an army bed in our one room apartment in the displaced persons’ camp in Esslingen, Germany. I was lonely, for I had my own bed.
Earlier, right after World War II, we had lived in Quonset huts with what seemed to be hundreds of people and there we had all slept on the floor with rolled up blankets serving as boundaries. I had found comfort in the sea of bodies, the periodic coughing or whispering, the warm breath of my mother whenever I turned toward her.
Although it was daytime, Mother had tacked up a dark blanket against the window, for I was sick again, and she said I mustn’t have any light or I might go blind. I absolutely detested a dim room, the way darkness made time drag, and most of all I was put out because my mother couldn’t read to me in the dark.
It was Mother’s custom to read to me only when I was sick, which as it turned out, was all the time, for I had had scurvy, whooping cough, diphtheria, chicken pox, measles, and now mumps.
Books were hard to come by. Once the United Nations Relief Organization authorized the publishing of a Latvian newspaper, however, as well as books, Mother read Latvian fairy tales to me. These books were paperbacks, cheaply stapled together of the thinnest, poorest quality paper. Covers and pages came off at the merest handling, so I didn’t touch them.
My grandmother gave me a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales written in German. Mother read to me from this book too, first reading a sentence in German, then translating it into Latvian if I didn’t fully understand what she had read. I kept this book for many years for its covers were hard and glossy and invited my touch.
Hansel and Gretel was one of my favorite fairy tales, and I asked Mother to read it to me over and over again. The late Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist, writes in “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” that children demand repetition for whatever length of time it takes them to extract meaning. Later, Bettelheim says, children will often go back to the same fairy tale when they are ready to enlarge upon old meanings or replace them with new ones.
This was true for me. When Hansel and Gretel were forced out of their home by their stepmother because there wasn’t enough food for everyone, I was scared for their survival. Today I understand that as a 4 year old what I really feared was separation from my own mother.
Without my going into detail, Bettelheim explains how images in the story (the gingerbread house, the witch, the forest, the birds, the treasure) allow a child to understand on a symbolic, preconscious level that to become an independent person one must “meet the world,” which develops not only initiative, but the ability to think clearly, both of which are necessary to solve life’s problems. Looking back on my own life, it seems that my conviction that all problems have solutions probably stems as much from my internalizing the experience of Hansel and Gretel as my parents’ upbringing.
Bettelheim points out that children from the age of 3 to 6 do not understand themselves in a conscious, rational way but rather through “spinning out daydreams,” ruminating, and fantasizing. Because fairy tales offer new dimensions to the imaginations of children, they have a way to structure daydreams, which in turn give better direction to their lives. For this reason, fairy tales are also superior to fables, myths, or any overt instruction on morality.
This is so because the fairy tale does not tell children outright how they must choose good over bad. Instead, it helps them develop the desire for a higher consciousness through what is implied in the story.
All fairy tales, Bettelheim says, address the basic human predicaments that adults often try to shield from children, such as death, aging, the wish for eternal life, as well as fears, inner pressures, and chaotic, angry, even violent fantasies. Fairy tales suggest in symbolic form how children may deal with these issues and grow safely into maturity.
Adults often look at a classic fairy tale ending, such as “They lived happily ever after,” as mere unrealistic wish-fulfillment. But Bettelheim tells us these adults are missing the point. This type of ending does not fool the child, for instance, into thinking that he will always live. It does, though, indicate that forming a “truly satisfying bond to another” takes the sting out of our mortal existence. In fact, the fairy tale points out that if one has found true adult love, one doesn’t need to wish for eternal life.
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• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.