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?
On BBC News, 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.
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:
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.
- Neil Gaiman, Coraline (London: Bloomsbury, 2002)
- Charles Perrault, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
- Ian Johnston, ‘Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” on The Independent
- ‘Dawkins debate: Should children listen to fairytales?‘ on BBC News