Ellie Levenson: Fairy tales prepare children for reality

Parents can't stop their children from hearing disturbing stories

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Have you heard the story about the beautiful but poor girl who lived with her father? One day her father met a nice woman who went on to become her stepmother. She helped the girl with her homework, encouraged her to achieve all that she could and bought her lovely clothes, even doing her hair nicely with ribbons for the local ball where she fell desperately in love with a prince.

Or what about that story about the two children who went for a walk in the woods one day leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that they could get home? Fortunately the breadcrumbs were still there later so they found their way home in time for dinner.

Boring aren't they? In fact the only reason fairy tales are fun is because they are full of dangerous characters such as wicked stepmothers, angry ogres and cannibal witches who frighten them, and us, along the way. So it's sad that many parents, polled in a survey by thebabywebsite.com, are rejecting fairy tales as suitable stories for their children. The site gives two main explanations: firstly, the stories are not politically correct; and secondly, the stories are too frightening.

I'm not that surprised by the first reason. I've been hearing for some time about children coming home from nursery singing songs such as "Baa-baa rainbow sheep have you any wool?" though I had dismissed this as a middle class urban myth of the "political correctness gone mad" variety. And while political correctness is generally a good thing if it means children are taught that sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are wrong, I am very sad if this stops nursery rhymes from poetic scansion.

I understand where the second lot of parents are coming from too. Fairy tales are scary. But that children are introduced to this kind of thing is hugely important.

First, by having a sense of hero and villain, of conquering evil and facing challenges, it helps teach them to understand other literature and forms of entertainment they will come across, and take great joy from, in their lives, be it Harry Potter fighting the dementors or computer games where they must repel aliens.

Second, it helps children to understand how to deal with situations that arise in their own lives and that not everyone is nice and going to help them. If parents want their children not to talk to strangers and not to wander into the forest at night, then children need frames of reference for what might happen if they do. So learning how to avoid being fattened up by a witch who intends to eat you could be understood in modern terms as avoiding giving out personal information online to people wishing to groom you for unsavoury reasons.

Anyway, while parents can choose what stories they tell their children at home, they can't stop their children from hearing disturbing stories from other sources.

The story that gave me nightmares when I was at school wasn't a fairy tale or something I'd seen on television. In fact, it wasn't even something I had heard myself. No, the teachers at my primary school called us together to tell us that there was absolutely no truth in the urban myth doing the rounds that someone was luring children into their car with sweets and then cutting the sides of their mouths with a knife to produce a permanent smile.

"If you hear this you are not to worry," they said – which led to several years of worrying about people cutting our mouths. On the upside, it did ensure that I never once took sweets from a stranger.

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