Fairy tales help kids spin magic

August 15, 1996|By Gayle Vassar Melvin

ONCE UPON A time, there were wolves who ate grandmas, pigs who built houses and frogs who could became princes with one magic kiss.

Then children became more sophisticated and lost their need for fairy tales.

Or did they?

Today's children may need the magic of fairy tales even more than their parents did, says Bette Bosma, author of "Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends and Myths: Using Folk Literature in Your Classroom" (Teachers College Press, Columbia) and professor emerita at Calvin College in Michigan.

"My feeling is that today's children are submerged in the real world, often to the exclusion of magical escape into fantasy. The general TV fantasy is often reduced to banalities; it fails to stimulate children to think beyond what they are seeing and hearing into spinning their own magic," she says.

Research shows that children deprived of fantasy may develop nightmares and suffer emotional delays, Bosma says.

"Fairy tales are very much part of a child's growing up. The need to include such ageless fantasy is as necessary, perhaps more so, as it was in any of the preceding generations," she says.

"The stories are part of our collective consciousness. We can reinterpret and modernize them, but the basic story is timeless and deals with really fundamental human experiences," adds San Francisco storyteller Denyse Adida. And they have happy endings.

Part of the fun of fairy tales is that they can be re-created in many ways without altering their message, she said. When Ms. Adida tells "The Three Little Pigs," she makes the smart pig a girl. And when her Little Red Riding Hood realizes that Grandma's sharp teeth spell trouble, she grabs the phone and dials 911.

Fairy tales do more than enchant, says Lambert Baker of United States International University in San Diego. They teach timeless values, such as the importance of listening to one's parents ("Little Red Riding Hood") or working together for a common goal ("The Little Red Hen").

"Fairy tales are relevant because they say something important. Look at Cinderella, at her attributes. It's a case of good triumphing over evil."

Although the first children's fairy tale books were created in the 19th century, the oral stories have seemingly always existed. There are more than 300 variations on the Cinderella theme, from almost as many cultures, proof of the human need for fantasy, Dr. Baker says.

Perhaps the most extensive look at the role fairy tales play in childhood is Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales" (Random House).

His book continues to be the bible on fairy tales. The child psychologist argued that the stories help children come to terms with issues such as abandonment, sibling rivalry, sexuality and their own turbulent emotions.

Children as heroes

In most cases, it's the children who overcome the monsters and witches. Hansel and Gretel outfox the witch; the smart little pig bests the big bad wolf. That can be empowering to youngsters.

Well-meaning adults who outlaw monsters aren't doing their children a favor, he wrote.

"They missed the monster the child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be. Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it."

"Most of the satirical fairy tales are really for the parents," notes children's book seller Sharyn Larsen. Still, some of the changes made over the past century are better for children's ears.

"Most of our fairy tales and folk tales have been watered down. The earlier version of 'Red Riding Hood' is pretty bad, with its sexual innuendoes about climbing into bed with the wolf. Those two Brothers Grimm went around hiding in bedroom closets almost literally. They really were grim."

The fear factor is part of fairy tales' appeal, says Chester Aaron, retired professor of children's literature at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.

"Children love fairy tales because they are scary. And children like good, strong characters with a good, strong plot; fairy tales have both," he says.

Furthermore, the plot twists and narrow escapes in fairy tales pale in comparison to the violence children see on television.

"Some of the criticism of fairy tales is true, but when you compare the so-called damage fairy tales might do to what is happening in the streets or on television, the fairy tales are pretty tame. You can do marvelous things in telling fairy tales, and you can't do that with television."

But Dr. Aaron fears too many children are growing up without fairy tales. He was disheartened by the number of students in his classes who had never heard the classic fairy tales.

"Children's stories are beginning to be passed by, and it will be a real loss. Fairy tales feed the literary imagination."

Gayle Vassar Melvin writes for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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