J.K. Rowling explores the powerful format of the fairy-tale in her new book “The Ickabog”.
Originally written as a bedtime story to read aloud to her own children, it has become an international phenomenon. During COVID-19 Rowling wanted to do something for the children and carers stuck in lockdown, so she retrieved the manuscript from the attic and released it as a free online serial. Children were invited to illustrate the story they were reading each day, and the very best of those illustrations appear in the printed book that is now on sale at your local bookshop. It’s a beautifully packaged book, certain to be treasured by children for many years.
But why do children love reading fairy-tales, or having them read aloud? What is it about a fairy-tale that makes it universally popular across cultures and decades?
According to child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe, director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology and author of The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children, even in our own age, fairy-tales still have a lot to teach children about life, and indeed give us key imaginary experiences that shape us throughout our lives.
“Fairy-tales are important not because they show children how life is, but because they give form to deep fears and dreams about life through fantasy,” Goddard Blythe says.
“The important thing to remember is that children take on these stories at the developmental level they are capable of. In fairy-tales, it’s always clear that this isn’t the real world. The characters might be unfamiliar to the child but the problems and the feelings that are dealt with are themselves often very true to life. Fairy tales give children a way, through stories that are safely set apart from themselves, to understand some of the really confusing and difficult feelings that they can’t yet articulate for themselves.”
Firstly, she explains, the black-and-white nature of fairy-tales helps children feel comfortable and that makes them perfect for learning important life lessons, such as those around behaviour and basic morality.
“The simplistic, good-versus-bad narrative of fairy-tales and the characters within them help children deal with uncertainty – it’s uncertainty that makes children anxious. By setting up this clear dichotomy from the beginning, and following this basic rubric throughout, whatever the story, fairy tales help children feel safe and comfortable with the story as it develops. So even if the hero or heroine at the centre of the tale experiences difficulties or hardship along the way, children can feel confident that they are going in the right direction.”
Conversely, the wicked stepmothers, witches, trolls, wolves and imps that make life generally difficult for everyone supply another important life lesson. “Learning that there are some wicked people in the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing for children,” says Goddard Blythe. “We don’t always help our children by allowing them to believe that the world they go into will always be easy or that other people will always understand them or make allowances for them.”
Fairy-tales allow kids a safe place to explore the idea that life isn’t always easy, that things can go wrong, and people don’t always have your best interests at heart. At the same time, as the “good” characters are usually rewarded at the end, it’s a way of reinforcing positively the importance of being kind, thoughtful and true.
Then there are the more specific lessons kids get from different fairy-tales, which can help them develop important life skills. “In The Ugly Duckling, for example, children hear about this duckling who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t the same as the others, and who all the other ducklings pick on and bully. They recognise this feeling of not fitting in; they understand it; it’s how many children feel in all sorts of situations, whether it’s their first day at nursery or school, or simply when they try something they are unsure or afraid of. So they learn to empathise, they understand that it is important to be kind. And then, of course, the duckling turns into a beautiful swan, which teaches them about not judging by outward experiences, and how people can change and evolve in life.”
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, children learn to speak out when they see something is wrong, even if everybody else is acting like it’s okay; the fact that you only have to say to a child “your nose is growing” for them to understand you know they’re telling fibs is testament to the lessons contained in Pinocchio; and Little Red Riding Hood has important lessons about the dangers of talking to strangers. All of which can be taken, translated and utilised by children in daily life.
Even as we grow up, fairy-tales stay with us – and according to Goddard Blythe, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (though you might want to consider trying a new film genre). “As adults, fairy tales are comforting to us because of their familiarity. They remind us of a time in our childhood before we had responsibilities and all the uncertainty and insecurity of adult life. And the message of each is ultimately positive – these happily-ever-after stories reassure us that somehow, in some way, with time everything will be alright in the end.” A pretty good lesson to take through life!