Why Every Child Should Hear a Fairy Tale
Have you ever wondered why children are so attracted to fairy tales?
Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist well known for his work with emotionally disturbed children, observes that children use fairy tales to help develop their daydreaming skills. In his article, “The Struggle For Meaning,” he suggests that in order to find meaning in life and stability, “. . . one must develop one’s inner resources, so that one’s emotions, imagination, and intellect mutually support and enrich one another” (269).
Most people consider daydreaming to be a royal waste of time and constantly discourage children from being active in it. However, there has been extensive research into this matter. One researcher, in particular, is Dr. Franz Riklin, the first secretary of the International Psychoanalytic Association. In his article, “Wishfulfillment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales,” he speculates that the imagination–including dreams, daydreams, fairy tales–is sometimes a form of human expression. Whenever a person is disappointed in life, he can fix the disappointment through the stories he spins in his head. Riklin says, “The poet, whose longings reality can not still, creates for himself, quite unconsciously, in phantasy, what life has denied to him” (98).
Daydreaming is especially beneficial to children who, because of their incompetence with grown-up language and inability to express themselves the way grown-ups can and do, resort to daydreaming as a way to settle their “unconscious.” What is the unconscious?
The Child’s Unconscious
According to Sigmund Freud, an incredibly famous psychologist who founded the field of psychoanalysis, the unconscious is a storage room for any thought or feeling to which your mind does not want you to have access. Ridiculous, right? But for whatever reason, unless you can find some way to draw out the thought or feeling yourself, your mind will hold it captive in the unconscious and it will never surface on its own. In Freud’s “Some Remarks on the Concept of the Unconscious as Used in Psychoanalysis,” he refers to this phenomenon as the mind’s “‘defense’ activity” (222).
However, just because unconscious material is kept out of reach does not mean it is any less real. We have all experienced at some time the feeling when an unconscious thought or feeling is definitely there but we have no way to describe it or understand it. Perhaps the mind protects us from having to feel the impact of a strong negative feeling, but we still sense its presence which can leave us feeling unsettled.
Fairy Tales and Daydreaming
Children are in a constant state of this unsettled feeling as they try to make sense of the confusing world around them and as they have an even harder time than adults drawing out the unconscious material and putting a label on it. This is problematic, because until a child can address whatever is going on in his unconscious, he will never settle in his person. Any strong feeling that is not addressed is just buried, getting stronger but given no outlet, until one day, it can explode.
Daydreaming is an interesting tool that brings inexpressible feelings into a literal, tangible form where the child can then handle it. Evil and injustice can be slain as a dragon; loneliness and disappointment can be helped through the empathy and sympathy of the hero. Even if not in such obvious terms, a daydream is a blank canvas for a child to paint, write, and dramatize anything that helps him address his problems and relieve him from his burdened mind.
Fairy tales are a unique set of literature that speaks to a child in simple, honest terms. A child can trust a fairy tale because it speaks to his problems–it does not try to cover up or downplay the problems (like many other stories and movies that seem to sing “Kumbaya”) and it provides encouragement and hope for overcoming those problems. It also provides exciting material with which the child can weave his daydreams.
Facing a problem in a daydream encourages the child to take initiative in his own life. A child needs to take initiative. But he needs an incentive to do so. Hope is a strong incentive. Bettelheim says, “Our positive feelings give us the strength to develop our rationality; only hope for the future can sustain us in the adversities we unavoidably encounter” (“Struggle for Meaning” 269). Fairy tales provide both hope and help for daydreaming.
So here’s a little piece of unconventional parenting advice: Make sure your kids get a good dose of fairy tales.
Disclaimer: Do not misunderstand–this is not to encourage excessive daydreaming, only to suggest that moderate daydreaming can be healthy for a child and that fairy tales may be a more helpful tool in child development than one might realize.
Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999, pp. 269-73.
Freud, Sigmund. “Some Remarks on the Concept of the Unconscious as Used in Psychoanalysis.” Internationale Zeitschrift für Aerztliche Psychoanalyse, abstracted by L.E. Emerson, vol. 1, no. 2. The Psychoanalytic Review: A Journal Devoted to an Understanding of the Human Conduct, edited by William A. White and Smith Ely Jelliffe, vol. 1, 1914, pp. 221-3.
Riklin, Franz. “Wishfulfillment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales.” Translated by William A. White. The Psychoanalytic Review: A Journal Devoted to an Understanding of Human Conduct, edited by William A. White and Smith Ely Jelliffe, vol. 1, 1914, pp. 94-107, 203-16, 322-32, 452-9.