Richard Dawkins: Is Telling Fairy Tales to Children ‘Pernicious?’

Over the weekend, I came across this article on the Independent website and this one on the BBC website. Now, whilst I think ‘pernicious’ is a fabulous word, I feel that Richard Dawkins’s use of it in this context is, well, slightly pernicious in itself.

Dawkins questions whether telling fairy tales to children is harmful, as they ‘inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.’ I agree that children should be aware of what is real and what isn’t, but fairy tales offer so much more than surrealism. Besides, if children aren’t told about the supernatural, then how will they be able to distinguish between it and reality?

Grimms fairy tales
Bedtime reading: Are supernatural tales harmful to children? Image by Giulianna Gadelha.

On the BBC News website, the psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe states that the beginnings of fairy tales, such as ‘once upon a time,’ imply that the stories ‘do not occur in everyday life and help a child to inquire into what is real and what’s not.’ Fantasy encourages children to think beyond what they know, which promotes intelligence and curiosity. Blythe goes on to say that ‘it would be a very sanitised, clinical world’ if we only taught children about ‘statistically likely scenarios.’ And it would – if no-one bothered to push the boundaries, or to imagine. Sounds a bit like Brave New World, really. 

After initially saying that fairy tales could be harmful because of their ability to install the supernatural in children, Dawkins went on to say that his real question was whether fairy tales actually do this. Well, that depends on a few things…

Firstly, the mindset of the child consuming the tale. Some are content to passively receive whatever they’re told, meaning they would be more likely to accept the supernatural elements of fairy tales. On the other hand, children who are inquisitive would be more likely to question them. The way in which they are told the tale can also have an impact on this. If they are in a classroom environment or with family and are encouraged to discuss the tale, then they will have a far greater understanding of it than if they read or hear it alone. 

Secondly, the impact of fairy tales is dependent on the other influences the child has. Anything taken in isolation will have a stronger effect, but often fairy tales are not the only type of entertainment available. The other things children consume and learn may support or conflict with fairy tales, and affect how willing they are to take on their supernatural elements. 

Finally, the tales themselves. Some contain more references to the supernatural than others, and many of them have morals beyond their content. As Neil Gaiman said in his children’s novel Coraline:

Neil Gaiman fairy tales

In some fairy tales, there is emphasis on a moral and as opposed to the content. It’s not important what the world the story takes place in is like or what supernatural creatures reside within it, just that they can be overcome. There is more to fairy tales than magic – they can be used to teach life lessons which are applicable to non-magical, real-life situations. For example, look at ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Okay, so there’s a wolf who can speak to humans and is able to disguise himself as grandma. But that has little to do with the moral, which is basically ‘don’t speak to strangers or bad things will happen’ (or if you’re dealing with Charles Perrault’s version, ‘beware of attractive, smooth-talking gentlemen and keep your legs closed until after marriage’).

Fairy tales make children aware of the possibility of the supernatural, but don’t necessarily make them believe in it. Belief is founded on much more than stories alone. But if children were to grow up without their influence, then I fear they would be severely lacking in creativity curiosity. Reality and fantasy can live side by side — it’s just a case of getting the balance right. But in order to do that, the scales need to be properly loaded in the first place. Children need to be aware of all the possibilities, and adults need to give them the freedom to make their own decisions. 

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Amelia Starling is a writer, editor, and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and currently lives in Japan and works as an English teacher. She is also a content editor for Folklore Thursday. Folklore-wise, she's particularly interested in the selkies, witches, and spinning wheels. In her spare time she enjoys travelling, photography, and attempting to play guitar.

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10 comments

  1. What Dawkins doesn’t understand is that children already have a supernatural outlook on life. They believe their toys to be alive even if they never watched Toy Story. They believe in dark and frightening powers, just as they believe in good powers. This is perfectly normal and healthy for children and they naturally outgrow that persepective between the age of 5 and 7. In fact in the 1920s there were attempts to keep children awayfrom all storiestht concerned the supernatural (bothbecause of a new rise of Rationalism and because those stories were associated with the lower classes).The result were children who came up with their own replacements for the boogeymen they never were told about, instead imagining demonic cars or evil policemen that abducted children.

    Having a trusted adult to discuss fairytales with is important for children, both to help them deal with the more frightening images that come up and to help older children on their way to a more rational understanding of the world, but by skipping fairy tales, you won’t be able to skip a whole (important!) phase of child development

    • Thank you for your insightful comment 🙂 Interesting about children being kept away from stories, I didn’t know about that. But you’re right, stories, the supernatural, and supportive adults are important to help children develop. If it’s not stories fuelling their imagination, then it will definitely be something else! We might be able to chose what they are exposed to, but we can’t change their entire way of thinking.

  2. I agree, it is always good to be hopeful! But some fairy tales are so matter-of-fact about how they convey horrible events that they grow to seem commonplace. This makes the happy endings stick, because readers don't register the bad things which have happened so much. But when you stop and think about it, you realise how grim some of the things are! I guess some were recorded like that to avoid upsetting children, but still, it's interesting to think about the different impact the ending can have when compared with the rest of the tale.

  3. Even if all fairy tales were to end happily (which they don't, as other comments were discussing), I don't know if I'd have a problem with all the happy endings. Like Katherine Langrish said, fairy tales are incredibly dark before the endings, often exposing us to our greatest fears. After all the pain, fairy tales that end happily give us hope. And while it's obviously dangerous to be naive, I think it's always healthy to hope for the best in the midst of struggle; even if it doesn't turn out the way we want it to, we shouldn't give up hope for our next trial.

    Also I didn't realize you had posted on this as well, I would have mentioned it in my post!

  4. In one way I think it's good to shelter children from possibly distressing content, but on the other hand, children are pretty good mediators themselves. Often they know what they like and don't like reading, and what scares them and what they're ready for. I think it's often the opinions of society which state what is and isn't right for children, instead of the children themselves. And now when gory things happen in fairy tales people say 'oh, that's a bit inappropriate for children' because that's what society has ingrained upon us to think. And you're right, fairy tales are criticised for many qualities. It seems to be that when they were 'hand-picked', as you put it, people had different ideas about what they wanted children to read. These seem to be changing slightly, but that means if anything that it should be the choosers who are criticised, not the tales themselves!

  5. Exactly: the fairystories now offered to children are precisely those stories which modern adults have considered 'suitable', discarding many others as 'unsuitable'. So we're in the odd position of most of best known fairytales having been hand-picked for children according to current cultural sensibilities, and then criticized for possessing the very qualities which got them into the canon.

  6. That's a really good point I hasn't thought of – it's not just fairy tales which give children positive views of the world. I think it's good for children (and everyone!) to be hopeful, but sadly it's not always practical.

    And yes, fairy tales don't hide their dark side by any means. 'The Singing Bone' is a great example, but I never encountered this story as a child. The versions of tales children are exposed to tend to be fluffier than the originals, probably to stop them from having nightmares!

    And you're welcome, thanks for visiting my blog and reading it 🙂

  7. I'd like to take up your point when you say that fairytales may offer an unrealistically positive view of the world. In a way, this is true: they do (usually) offer 'happy endings'. And yet, so does most modedrn children's fiction, and when it doesn't, it's criticised for being 'too dark'. As a society, we prefer to start our children off in life with hope: knowing they'll all too soon encounter the dark side.

    Neverthless, fairytales hardly hide the dark side of life. (I wonder sometimes about all those princes who died, hopelessly tangled in the hedge of thorns, because they arrived before the hundred years sleep was done?) Or what about the story of 'The Singing Bone', in which the 'happy ending' is bare justice and cannot bring the murdered man back? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singing_Bone

    Perhaps, in the days that story was told, justice alone may have seemed almost unattainable…

    Thanks for your post!

  8. Oh wow, I didn't know he said that as well. Seems like he's a bit confused about his feelings towards fairy tales, which doesn't make his arguments very credible! And thank you, I think that's one of the most interesting things about fairy tales. Enjoy your pondering 🙂

  9. Just skimmed the article, and it was some time ago, but didn't Dawkins back-peddle and say that fairy tales like The Golden Compass, that teach atheism, are all right for children? So they're not pernicious if they push _his_ agenda. 😛 I think he's a sensationalist more than a real scientist, to be honest.

    You bring up a really good point about fairy tales being a potential danger in a world where not all things work out for the best. I'll have to ponder that myself. c:

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