Traditional tales have been getting a lot of flak for their dated themes and characters. While some of the arguments have valuable points (we don’t want our daughters growing up thinking that marriage to a handsome prince is the ultimate life goal), from a psychological point of view there are plenty to gain from these ancient tales.
As a drama therapist I work with fairy tales with both adults and children in various settings. I am also a mother of two young children. Here are 5 good reasons to tell a fairytale, based on theories of Jungian analytical psychology and drama therapy, and illustrated by my experiences from work and motherhood.
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1. Fairytales offer a container for our monsters and other scary things
There are various developmental stages where children experience intense fear, but are not able to rationally make sense of it or put it into words. This is the time of monsters where all that feels scary gets projected onto unseen creatures. Fairy tales help to navigate this by offering a name and shape to project these scary things onto.
And what is out there and can be seen, feels less scary than the inexplicable dark feelings inside. Furthermore, in most fairy tales these monsters are slain and it ends with all being well in the world. As adults we know the world is not that black and white, but children are still learning to endure this.
2. One-dimensional characters invite projection of good and evil
The characters in fairy tales speak to children in simple and universal language. They are what Jung refers to as archetypes, those symbols that reside in our collective unconscious and help us to make sense of the world. Typically, these archetypical characters are either good or bad.
For a young child who still struggles with the concept of ambivalence, these stories offer a simple way of developing a moral code, and to distinguish between right and wrong. While they may project the bad things onto the villains, they equally have the experience to identify with the hero’s good qualities and make these their own.
Complex characterisation can complicate things. A good example is my 3-year-old who was completely distraught by the Disney version of Rapunzel (Tangled). Rapunzel had a torn relationship with her captor, Mother Gothel. To my daughter, it seemed that Mother Gothel genuinely cared for Rapunzel, while at the same time plotting to hurt her. This Freudian notion of Good and Bad Mother in one character was a concept too emotionally complex for her to bear at her age. In our subsequent role play, I had to endlessly take on the roles of Good and Bad Mother Gothel intermittently, until she got it out of her system. We still don’t use that name in our house.
3. Fairy tales help to process emotions when words are not available
The archetypes and symbolism in fairy tales also offer universal themes that most people can identify with in some way. And the beauty of stories is that it’s not always necessary to analyse their meaning. Just the act of telling, listening and maybe playing out is enough for the unconscious to process themes. (Much like the function of dreams.)
So when we had the rather poor timing of sending my daughter to a new crèche, just around the time that her brother was born, it was the story of Hansel and Gretel that she turned to. I imagine that, for a while, I became the evil stepmother who kicked her out of her home (possibly in her mind to make space for the baby).
In the middle of the unknown, she found the candy house with the witch inside. The new crèche was at once a deliciously exciting place, as well as scary. But like the story, she found her way back home. And just like Hansel and Gretel, her bond with her father strengthened in the time when mom was otherwise occupied. These are of course my speculations and we’ll never really know what her thought processes were. But for weeks on end during that time, she chose this story for bedtime reading.
4. Fairy tales mirror the journey that is life
Most fairy tales follow the mythical recipe of a hero who has to leave home, face his fears and achieve a ‘happy ever after’. These are the ones that are most popular in my work.
For example, in an eating disorder unit, one group worked with Snow White who has to face off the evil queen and her constant obsession with beauty and the mirror. A group of children who had suffered trauma worked with The Three Little Pigs who set out to learn how to build strong, safe homes that can withstand the appetite of the Wolf.
It is no coincidence that these main characters are often depicted as children. For youngsters, they are easy to identify with and brings home the message that the young and vulnerable can also be brave and overcome.
5. Fairy tales fire our imaginations
These ancient tales are not meant to be concrete and realistic. Their mythical, magical characters and themes give wings to the imagination. And this is the place from which all creativity, dreams, empathy and problem-solving flow. In my work they have been an invaluable tool to access the imagination of children and adults who have lost their way due to trauma. In my family life they have been a source of joy and reminiscence from my own childhood that gets passed on.
Something very special happens between teller and listener when a tale is told. So cuddle up and tell the stories to your children the way you remembered them, because that is most likely exactly the way they need to be heard.
Do you soften fairy tales when you tell them to your kids? Or do you think they're outdated altogether? Which fairy tales do your kids identify with? Send your stories and comments to email@example.com and we may publish them - anonymously if you wish.
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