Tom Sutcliffe: The fairytale survey that became a work of fiction

Social Studies: Fairytales can offer a safe space in which to explore children's darker fears

Tuesday 15 March 2011 01:00

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Once upon a time there was a very small storm in a very small tea cup. If you listened to the Today programme yesterday, or read the Telegraph or the Mail, you may even have felt the breeze, with the suggestion – loosely hooked to the publication of a new book by a child psychologist called Sally Goddard Blythe – that modern parents were impoverishing their children's development by steering clear of traditional fairytales.

What a great story it was. It had an ogre, in the shape of the dimwitted giant Peecee, and it had a heroine in the shape of Ms Blythe – not afraid to make her way through the dark woods of liberal cant and win back the treasure of moral instruction contained in these familiar and much-loved stories. I responded to it myself initially, firing up my inner conservative to grouch about the folly of modern culture – its timidity and poverty of imagination. And then it occurred to me that it might just be a fairytale itself.

The poll findings on which the story was based came from a survey of 3,000 parents commissioned by from a Bristol marketing firm called One Poll. So, it wasn't – as I'd initially, cynically assumed – one of those self-selective online questionnaires which pass themselves off as real research.

The full results did make interesting reading, though, since it was difficult to square One Poll's findings with the suggestion that parents were turning their backs on the traditional fairytale. Take the Daily Mail's suggestion, for instance, that "Rapunzel was considered 'too dark'".

The only direct reference to Rapunzel in the questionnaire was this: "Do you avoid telling your children more traditional fairytales such as Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk?" A mere 11.41 per cent answered yes to this question, so one assumes only they could legitimately answer the next question: "Which of the following reasons best describes why you won't tell these stories to your children?" And of those who answered, only 11.35 per cent said it was because they are "too dark/sinister". In other words, something like 39 people out of 3,000 thought Rapunzel was too dark; just over 1 per cent – and hardly evidence of a significant cultural shift.

And the suggestion that "growing numbers of parents no longer read classics such as Snow White [...] because of concerns that they stereotype minority groups," as The Telegraph reported? Might that possibly have been engendered by the questionnaire rather than anything in the real world?

The question respondents were asked to answer was this: "In this politically correct day and age, do you think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs should be retitled 'Snow White and the Seven Vertically Challenged People'?". Unsurprisingly, only 8.7 per cent of respondents agreed with the fatuous notion, and even that number would have been inflated – I would have thought – by the faint implication that it was what they should say. And remember – the idea was introduced by the questionnaire in the first place.

As it happens I was most struck by a question which didn't get a lot of coverage: "Do you try to avoid stories which might give your children nightmares?" A no-brainer, that one, you might have thought – whether you take a modern or traditional view of parenting. Which parent wouldn't try to avoid such a thing, even if they valued the ability of fairytales to offer a safe space in which to explore children's darker fears? And yet just over 25 per cent answered "no" to that question.

Why no headlines reading "Quarter of parents happy for their children to have nightmares"? Because it didn't match up with the fable we wanted to hear again, the one in which the kingdom is troubled and only Common Sense can rescue us. In fact, it seems that common sense was never in danger at all. Don't be scared, it was just a story.

Disaster shows the true faces of bankers

What's the definition of a real banker? What about someone whose first thought on hearing the news from Japan was "I wonder how we can turn a profit from this?"

We've heard a lot recently about the importance of the global banking system, from bankers indignant that their contribution to civic society has been overlooked. And yet only the most naïve person would assume that any of the trades movements that immediately followed the news of the Japan earthquake was animated by anything other than avarice or self-protection ("Mustn't get our feet wet on this one" they probably thought).

Apart from the Bank of Japan, which attempted to shore up the economy, not one trader would have thought "Perhaps this isn't the moment to make things harder for the Japanese economy ... perhaps it's our human duty to pause". They couldn't. Because – although they whine at the rest of us for demonising the profession – they have no higher regard for their colleagues' sense of social responsibility and knew they would be beaten to advantageous trades if they didn't move fast.

And though some money moved in ways that may have been helpful (shares in Japanese construction companies went up), it moved only to the dictates of profit. Only a child would be surprised, of course, but next time we hear talk of the social values of global banking, we should think of this. What did the Invisible Hand do in the immediate aftermath of an overwhelming human tragedy? It picked through the wreckage, looking for loot.

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