Fairy tale heroes and heroines all take the same journey. Most begin with an abusive home, but some start out on a quest. Cinderella is tormented by cruel stepsisters and Snow White’s step mother tries to kill her. Without parental protections, the main character is soon lost in a threatening dark forest. Although extreme challenges beset them in the woods, invariably helpers appear in the form of godmothers, helpful animals, or dwarfs. Strong inner resourcefulness is discovered as they master tasks of strategy and use empathic ways with others. Ultimately, the standard path leads to a high exalted place in society. The stories teach that quick wittedness and kindness leads one to a good end despite the necessary struggles along the way.
Some parents are concerned about the violent themes. Fairy tales often revolve around child neglect and abuse, such as in Hansel and Gretel, wherein the parents abandon the children to the forest, or the Girl without Hands, where the story centers on the father’s pact with the devil that ultimately leads him to chop off his daughter’s hands.
More than ever before, modern times are filled with the threat of violence and discord in the forms of terrorism, global warming, school shootings and myriad other representations. Because of rapid advances in communication technology such as the internet, it is impossible to hide these core realities. Children need models and guides for mastering threatening situations.
The fairy tale hero or heroine invariably finds the means to master disturbing events. Thus they teach that it is within one’s own power to thrive through creative and strategic action despite what appear to be overwhelming odds.
For example, In the Grimm’s tale, The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest, one learns that through a willing attitude to try difficult tasks, success follows. As the heroine successfully faces impossible challenges, such as gathering strawberries in bitter cold of winter, she gains strength.
“A man with a daughter loses his wife and marries a woman who has lost her husband and also has a daughter. The stepmother favors her own daughter and makes her stepdaughter do the nasty work. One winter day she tells the maiden to gather strawberries in the woods. The girl objects but is forced to the task. In the woods she comes upon a little house with three little men living in it. They pity her being in the snow and ask her why she is there. She tells of her task and shares her meager breakfast with them. They tell her to sweep the snow from the back door, which she does. So they grant her three gifts: that she shall become more beautiful each day, that gold will come from her mouth, and that a king shall take her for his wife. Meanwhile she has discovered ripe strawberries shooting from the ground; she fills her basket and returns home.”
Parents become concerned when their children are fearful. Yet it is part of normal child development to become afraid. During preschool, small ones may get distressed over the dark, monsters and ghosts, animals and noises in the night. During school years, fears shift to fear of rejection or failure, being hurt, natural disasters, an angry teacher, being home alone, scary news and death. These are frequently the main motifs in fairy tales! In symbolic language, classic stories encode the means to master fears. For example, the essential theme, the “dark forest” always resolves with the heroine’s finding her way to safety.
Contrast the beginning of the story The Ugly Duckling, wherein “the ducks bit him, the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed him kicked him aside…..” “….Even his mother said “I wish you were miles away” with the ending wherein “He thought of how he had been scorned……and now he was the most beautiful of all birds”.
Tales teach although frightening situations exist, it is within one’s own power and resources to find the path to safety and eventual success.
Bette Kiernan, MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice in Palo Alto, California. She works with individuals, couples, groups, and families. Depression, anxiety, life transitions, eating disorders, and anger are frequent treatment focal points Corporate crisis interventions are her specialty. She intervenes at major Silicon Valley worksites during bank robberies, airplane crash impacts, employee deaths layoffs and train accidents. She has taught widely at California universities including Santa Clara University, University of California Santa Cruz Extension, University of California Berkeley Extension, and Sofia University. Massachusetts Institute Technology presents her theoretical work on fairy tales and sacred texts at their International Conference on Media in Transition. She welcomes new client appointments in her Palo Alto office.
- The Uses of Fairy Tales in Psychotherapy Bette U. Kiernan, MFT -MIT …
- Uses of Fairy Tales database
- Examining Sacred Texts, Bette U. Kiernan, MFT – MIT