In Psychology, Folklore, Creativity and the Human Dilemma, Julius E. Heuscher expands on the intrinsic developmental qualities of folktales, which are at once entertaining and educational, qualities which make them quite unique. “Among all the artistic genres, folklore is singularly suited to further the creative participation of the listeners or readers, provided they find the time and peace of mind which allows the stories to reveal some of their deepest meanings” (Heuscher, p. 217). It is this “creative participation” that encourages the reader to glean the story’s deeper meaning. In so doing, it requires the child, as “participant,” to think, to reason, on multiple levels. The further challenge, part of the “game” of working out a tale’s meaning, is to extrapolate some rationale for action, for taking the deeper intent of the story and applying it to real-life situations. Thus, it becomes just as important “to be able not only to recognize and formulate what one has appropriated in one’s openness to the created items, but also to find ways to translate these concepts into action is a further, crucial, creative process” (Heuscher, p. 217).
Just what that translation amounts to lies in the eye of the beholder. Most of the great traditional folk stories are quite simple in their larger meaning, but contain some more sophisticated, nuanced, perceived message that can be interpreted in multiple ways. This subjectivity exists in much the same way a great painting, or some other form of visual art, calls on the viewer to observe, interpret and conclude based on a careful examination of the subject at hand. In this way, stories become “’windows’ into wider worlds,” worlds that the interpreter, in a sense, creates for him or herself (Heuscher, p. 217). The process, then, becomes every bit as important as the story itself because it is through the creative collaboration of the reader/listener that the story retains meaning and provides new avenues of interpretation.
A child learning to create an imagined world through the interpretation of stories relies on the predominantly optimistic nature of folk stories. Unlike mythology, for example, stories reaffirm the possibility that lessons can be imparted through the imposition of danger, or threats, without precluding the possibility of a happy ending. We can do little but sympathize with Atlas, even shudder at his terrible fate, yet in “The Three Little Pigs,” the young reader’s fear for the pigs is relieved when they find sanctuary from the wolf in the brick house; a story that ends happily while imparting an important moral lesson (Zipes, p. 184). Thus, the reader learns that “a certain amount of pleasure can be retained while the demands of reality are respected,” which describes the actions of the oldest pig, who had the foresight to construct the brick house (Zipes, p. 184). Thus, redemption is possible but only if one conserves, plans ahead, foregoes instant gratification, etc. Otherwise, the alternative is too terrible to be contemplated.
According to Bettelheim, the use of fear in folktales is instructive in a cautionary sense, but it also teaches confidence. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the young reader is encouraged to “explore on his own even the figments of his anxious imagination, because such fairy tales give him confidence that he can master not only the real dangers which his parents told him about, but even those vastly exaggerated ones which he fears exist” (Bettelheim, p. 167). The story creates in the young reader’s mind the worst horror imaginable, a carnivorous witch posing as a kindly matron. The reader is assured that even the most insidiously predatory monster can be overcome by resourcefulness and self-confidence. Therefore, the child learns that he can maintain control of his world - he is empowered to believe in his own self-efficacy.
Bettelheim, rather ironically, roundly criticized Maurice Sendak’s seminal Where the Wild Things Are when it was published in 1963. The child psychologist who argued so forcefully that fairy stories like “Hansel and Gretel” can help bolster childrens’ confidence denounced Sendak’s tale for being too frightening for children, despite the fact that Max gains control of the situation as “king” of the fantasy monsters and returns home to the safety of his bedroom (Sendak, 1998). Though Bettelheim was not the only one to attack the book, his influence shaped opinion. More importantly, it pointed to a contradiction in his perspective. In an interview, Bettelheim argued that the story’s portrayal of a child being sent to bed with no supper by his mother - the symbolic provider of sustenance - amounted to a primal childhood fear of parental loss, or neglect (Shafer, 2009). Bettelheim makes no reference to the fact that the story has certain parallels with “Hansel and Gretel,” a tale he lauds for showing that children need not give in to their deepest fears.
Nor does the young reader need fear that the chaos which characterizes fairy tales will prevail. The components of the fairy tale reflect the Freudian psychological ordering of the human persona, which sorts through the chaotic. “Like the symbols of the id, ego and superego, which Freud created as operative constructs, the fairy-tale symbols represent separate entities of the child’s inner sanctum, and their representation in a fairy taleshows how order can be made out of chaos” (Zipes, p. 184). The fairy tale liberates a child’s imagination by taking a “problematic real situation” and transforming it through imagination. Thus, fantasy transforms reality so that the child is able to deal with it (Ibid). Bettelheim contradicted his espousal of this theory by denying that Where the Wild Things Are functions as do other fairy stories.
And yet despite the ability of fairy tales to reassure, encourage and develop young readers, it should be remembered that there is a significant difference between the folk tale as a mechanism for growth and self-awareness and the fairy tale as an opiate, an oppressive instrument which works through mass media to overwhelm a child’s senses and ability to exercise reason. This consuming trend, an unavoidable part of modern-day storytelling, negates the partnership between story and reader that has always served so well in the development of critical thinking skills. Cartoons, videos, movies and video games today occupy this space. And while some may serve a positive developmental purpose, the time-honored, subjective nature of folktales is sacrificed – there is little need for interpretation when children are told everything they need to know.
Most parents can relate to this phenomenon, and many can probably attest to the fact that electronic devices have come to represent more than instant gratification. The commercially motivated push to engage children through technology has taken place on an immense scale. Increasingly sophisticated video technology has made video games strikingly interactive. It has also allowed companies like Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic to employ cutting-edge production techniques in creating what may be termed “pseudo-fairy tales.” In this way, modern means of entertainment have trivialized the cognitive, interpretative activity that traditional folktales have always elicited. But something deeper, and as important, has occurred: the erosion of a traditional, secular concept of common morality.
British child development expert Sally Goddard Blythe contends that when parents forego traditional fairy stories, they dismiss a generations-old means of learning a classical moral code. “Fairy tales help to teach children an understanding of right and wrong, not through direct teaching, but through implication,” Goddard said (Daily Mail, 2011). Goddard argues that the preference among modern parents to read their children less frightening, more “politically correct” stories encourages homogeneity and ignores important lessons about diversity and the difference between right and wrong (Ibid). A 2010 poll of 3,000 British parents revealed that one in 10 believe that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” should be renamed because “’the dwarf reference is not PC’” (Ibid). The survey also found that many believe the story of Rapunzel is too frightening, and that Cinderella is not pertinent because it portrays a woman being forced to do housework (Ibid).
The erosion of the traditional folktale can probably be traced to the rise of psychoanalysis and of child psychology, which “revealed just how violent, anxious, destructive and even sadistic a child’s imagination is” (Bettelheim, p. 120). Those who decry the influence of fairy tales in child development tend to claim that these stories are prone to exacerbate a child’s darkest thoughts. What is lost, however, is the ameliorating effect a folktale can have on the chaotic and violent thoughts that can make a monster of a child’s imagination (Ibid). As such, a parent who tries to engineer the natural development of a child’s psyche by suppressing the elaboration and interpretation of fantasy is not acting in the child’s best interests.
In a sense, it is understandable that adults should wish to sanitize life and try to make it appear safe for their children, which could account for the results of the British survey. Most fairy tales hinge on some crisis, or misfortune. For parents who worry about child molestation, about child snatchers and the predations of drug dealers, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” and the Big Bad Wolf doubtless epitomize their worst fears. But child development experts like Sally Goddard Blythe insist that crisis in fairy tales provide the impetus that sets a child’s imagination in motion and offers assurance that crisis can be survived and learned from through the application of intellect, common sense and courage. Children learn in many ways; sometimes, learning takes place under frightening, even threatening circumstances. The child who burns his or her hand on a hot stove learns to be careful in the kitchen. There is an unpleasant price to pay, but the child’s awareness of the world expands.
The child knows he or she will most likely remain safe by following the lessons learned Claus “myth” commends to the child desirable characteristics learned through the exercise of imagination. “Encouraging children to believe in a benevolent Santa may foster traits of kindness and cooperation” (Breen, 2004). This is an interactive, even therapeutic fable in which children can participate by writing letters that may be used to tell Santa Claus of their fears, or ask for relief from loneliness, or grief (Ibid).
Children are also more apt to display behavior associated with Santa Claus. Continued participation in the Christmas fable is intrinsically philanthropic. A child inspired by the example of a supernatural being who brings gifts to all children is encouraged to emulate this behavior, which is likely to acquire the status of an ideal in the child’s mind. There may be important, long-term developmental effects to be derived from participating in the Santa Claus fantasy. “Stimulating these fantasies helps focus attention and concentration, and may enhance ideals and creative thinking” (Breen, 2004). As with fairy tales, Santa Claus represents a wealth of opportunities for a child to exercise the power of imagination.
Folktales are still with us in many forms and guises. Indeed, they are so entrenched within our culture, as expression and euphemism, that we lose sight of their original meaning, to say nothing of their intent as a means of instruction. Television, the movies, the Internet and the
latest in communication technology have all played their part in the demise of the classic folk story. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the delivery method has become the message itself; sophisticated technology offers a dynamic yet one-dimensional substitute for the depth of meaning that folk stories possess, and the educational system has seen fit to treat them as dangerous and backwards. “Children subjected to the biases of standardized schooling and mass modes of entertainment no longer want to be ‘told’ stories that might depart from the ‘correct’ versions printed on books or on film” (Zipes, p. 5).
It seems reasonable to imagine folk stories as permanently ossified cultural remnants, existing in much the same way that scraps of Latin remain as the only elements of a once-great linguistic tradition. With few secular means left for teaching the value of moral behavior, children are left in a kind of vacuum, in which notions of heterogeneity and cultural diversity are increasingly marginalized. Children face the world with their own innate perceptive tools, but it is how those tools are applied that would seem to matter. As such, “our eyes and instincts are all we have to work with, but they can become more alert and better attuned just by reading many fairy tales, from many different places, with as much slowness and patience as can be mustered” (Zipes, p. 5). Globalization is gradually transforming the world and the way people view themselves. But it need not require that fairy tales, and what they have to offer children, should be omitted and forgotten.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
New York: Random House, 2010.
Breen, Lynda. “What if Santa Died? Childhood Myths and Development.” The Psychiatrist,
Heuscher, Julius Ernest. Psychology, Folklore, Creativity, and the Human Dilemma.
Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 2003.
“Once Upon a Time, There was a Moral CodeFairy Tales ARE Better for Children than
Modern Books, Experts Claim.” Daily Mall, 14 March 2011.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper Colllins, 1998.
Shafer, Jack. “Maurice Sendak’s Thin Skin.” Slate. 15 Oct. 2009. Web.
Zipes, Jack David. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.
Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1979.