This is a guest post from Candice (aka NonProphetess). She is a blogger and outspoken skeptic/atheist/humanist, a mommy, nerd and craft beer enthusiast. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.
Every fairytale has a lesson to be learned, whether it’s venturing outside your comfort zone as Ariel in The Little Mermaid did or learning to think critically about a wolf in Grandma’s clothing. A woman asked Albert Einstein how to prepare her child to become a scientist. He said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to very intelligent, read them more fairy tales,” and added that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist . There are numerous psychological benefits to showing children different ways of overcoming problems. Young children especially need ways of acting out solutions in their imagination when they have so little control over their environment. There are little to no grey areas between good and evil so it allows kids to clearly delineate between acceptable behaviors.
The benefits translate into adulthood as well. No one ever said that fairytales are written for children but as people mature, there becomes this pervasive view that fantasy is for the youth. Grownups seem almost disdainful of taking in delight in something so simple, as if it’s not important enough to their intellectual development.
J. R. R. Tolkein wrote on the subject:
“I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.”
The world might even be a better place if the lessons that are taught to children are reinforced to adults- thinking outside the box (Rapunzel), kindness (Cinderella), and the use of logic and reason (Chicken Little.)
Skeptics and naturalists can see just how potent mythology can be when demonstrated as real and present but we have to make sure to not conflate harmful religious ideologies with all fairytales and fiction. Indeed, imagination combined with a firm grasp on reality is what pushes innovators and scientists to the tops of their fields. Secular children are already learning how to question and rationally problem solve. A study by BBC showed that secular children are less likely than their religious peers to believe fictional characters are real and a poll done by the LA Times demonstrated that secular children are more likely to be empathetic and independent thinkers . Combining that sense of skepticism with the fantastical nature of fairytales can only lead to more creative and intelligent solutions from the next generation.
Challenging the promotion of traditional fairytales are the claims of anti-feminism and violence. After all, no progressive wants to teach their daughter she needs a prince to rescue her in order to live happily ever after. Many parents would be appalled by King Triton’s ascent to Ariel changing everything about herself in order to marry a man at sixteen years old. A lot of fairy tales have been Disney-fied in order to make them acceptable for children but we still read about child abuse (Cinderella), murder (every villain ever), and not even thinly-veiled racism (Peter Pan.) People don’t want to teach their kids that these kind of things are okay, even a little. Children aren’t mature enough to understand the concepts and they promote terrible self-images of ‘damsels in distress,’ ‘princes who must always rescue,’ and ‘violence is the answer.’
Fortunately, parenting is an active verb. With every story, questions need to be asked- not from the children, but to the children. “What do you think about X part?” “How did Y part make you feel?” “How would you handle Z?” Keeping children ignorant of ugly concepts will never allow them to assess it for themselves. By reading the fairytales and opening up topics, parents take control over how the information is presented and how it is received. Kids deserve to be educated and they deserve to be taught how to question the ethics within stories. That’s how they learn how to make independent moral judgements. Read fairytales to your children and, if you already do, read more.