Our little family of three went to watch Disney’s new rendition of Cinderella at the cinemas last weekend. I was as excited as Re was. How would she be? How lovely would her blue gown be? What would her castle look like? How evil would her stepmother be? What would the prince be like? How would her carriage look? How will the lizard turn into the coachman? And the mice to horses? And the most important question: What would her glass slipper look like?
While Re and I were both riveted, my husband kept turning to him, squeezing his hand, wondering if the harshness of the stepmother and starkness of evil would be disconcerting. Re told him with an equanimity that only a child raised on fairy tales will have: “Wait, she will be sended away from the kingdom soon.”
The child was indeed the father of man in our case.
As a new mother, I often faced the anti-fairytale brigade. They are too black and white, they said. “They glorify concepts of good and evil. They are full of evil stepmothers and witches and fairies and make your child believe in the supernatural.” Another voice said that fairy tales give you the illusion of a happily ever after for everyone and life is not like that.
I paid no heed, and decided to listen to Albert Einstein who once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
In the earlier school that Re went to, I was cautioned: “Let him not read too many fairy tales.” It was too late, as we had read most of them in their various versions. While my friends were still arguing about gender fluidity on social media, Re and I were playing with wands, ball gowns, castles and of course, princesses. When people said I should be letting Re know that there was no real Santa Claus, I went and got ourself a real Christmas tree.
Children need fairy tales to make sense of the world. Because sometimes, fantasy can be a great way to reveal the larger truth. When there are no rules to be followed, the truth is often clearer. Like any other good story, a good fairy tale can provide a reference point to your child. It teaches us about hope, courage, hard work, justice. And above all, love and kindness, as Cinderella’s mother would say.
But even if broken down to its most simplistic form, fairy tales help the child’s imagination. And imagination is everything. A child who can imagine fairy wings and magic bean stalks is also capable of imagining other wondrous things. And what can be wrong with a little bit of color?
As adults, we forget to believe in our imaginary worlds. But there are still things in our subconscious that get awakened by fairy tales. They take us away from our everyday world, they free our minds to see the intangible with special clarity. They make us believe in magic. If we are afraid of magic, there is no hope for us as human beings.
Richard Dawkins, prominent atheist, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion had provoked a debate about the impact of fairy tales when speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival sometime last year. Among other things, Dawkins said that it was harmful to read fairy tales to children because it instilled a false belief in the supernatural. He has since denied the claims, adding on Twitter that fairy stories may “on balance” have a positive effect on children as they grow up by fostering critical thinking.
No matter how politically incorrect stories about evil stepmothers, damsels in distress, and cannibalistic old women may be, fairy tales are here to stay. And that’s a good thing, say the experts. “They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” says Maria Tatar, professor at Harvard College who writes about, and teaches classes on, fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.”
Writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters – many of them children themselves – demonstrate pluck, and the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.
The joy is when your child tells you that magic is not real, but still allows him and you the possibility of being enthralled by it.
It is possible to believe in magic, yet know that it is not real.
It is possible to know that bad things happen to bad people, but sometimes they can also happen to good people.
For every Snow White waiting to be kissed by her prince, there is a Pocahontas, who can kiss her Prince and let him go. For Re, they both are heroes, perhaps the latter a shade more than the former.
I don’t think children believe in absolute good and absolute evil. Re told me once, “If you were good, and then you became evil , you can become good again.”
Or this about Cinderella’s stepmother: “Well, she is not a mean person. She just does mean things sometimes.”
Or this about Pocahontas: “Sometimes, you can do true-love’s kiss, but you don’t have to marry!”
The beautiful thing is, until my child believes in fairy tales, I can believe in them too. And that perhaps is the greatest gift a child can give you. Because if your heart remembers that the impossible is possible, you will try it…and sometimes, it works.
(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 30th March, 2015)