what use are fairy tales?

fairy tales

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Albert Einstein

While I’m hesitant to take issue with anything said by someone who was clearly a whole lot smarter than me, I can’t help wondering if fairy tales are an appropriate path to intelligence. I’m more inclined to think that fairy tales convey outdated traditional control mechanisms and fear seeped in ignorance that haunted previous generations.

After all, what do the bulk of fairytales tell us about life?

  • It’s important to be pretty because pretty people are nice, e.g. ugly and nasty step-sisters, beautiful and nice Cinderella.
  • There is a one true love in the world, a heterosexual and physically attractive partner who is brave as a man and in need of rescue as a woman, e.g. Snow White
  • It’s great that people inherit positions of power – to be a king, queen, prince or princess, through birth or marriage (and chosen for nuptials because of beauty), is ultimately desirable e.g. Beauty and the Beast
  • Good and evil are absolute characteristics e.g. every wicked witch and every pretty princess
  • Life holds a promise of ‘happily ever after’, e.g. every single fairy tale

These are stories designed to make children afraid of unpleasant behaviour, rather that look for reasons; they are stories that limit children’s imaginations in terms of gender roles and romantic love; and they idealise naive aspirations that life will never deliver. 

These well-known failings in traditional stories have been updated in some places by modern story-tellers. You can find films such as Ever After and Snow White and the Huntsman that attempt to tackle at least the glaringly awful female and male stereotypes. The TV series Once Upon a Time has a go at a more rounded depiction of characters such as Rumpelstiltskin – the ugly little man has a story behind his behaviour. But these are all for adults. The basic fairy tales that are presented to the developing minds of young children go largely unaltered.

I propose that rather than reciting traditional fairy tales to our children, they be archived and preserved only for historical curiosity.  There are plenty excellent stories penned by our own generation that stimulate the imagination and won’t leave a lasting stain on our childrens’ brains. Traditional fairy tales remind me of religion – you can find limited moral lessons in there somewhere but the overall effect is clearly harmful.

Post inspired by Clare Flourish and Philip Pullman interview in the Guardian

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”