Who has not ever been surprised by the cruelty in classic fairy tales and discovered, as an adult, they are not as pure and innocent as could appear when we read them when we were children.
In these stories is common to find situations where parents leave their children to fend for themselves, like in Hansel and Gretel, since they are poor and cannot feed them. In others, children are eaten by ogres or wild animals, like in Tom Thumb or Little Red Riding Hood, not to mention other atrocities such as serial murders or mutilations suffered by the characters in The Red Shoes or Bluebeard.
But how is that possible? Was the society insensitive to these issues? Did those children need to be indoctrinated with these terrible stories to prepare them for the harsh vicissitudes of life? Maybe yes, though the answer might be even simpler: these stories were not initially written for children.
In the seventeenth century, the French writer Charles Perrault was one of the first to collect and give literary form to those stories that passed down orally from father to son, eliminating the gory aspects, but not because they were aimed at children, but because they were to be read by the refined French high society. It was not until the nineteenth century when the stories began to be considered suitable for children’s education. The Brothers Grimm in Children’s and Household Tales (1812 and 1815) compiled the stories that, and thanks to a rigid censorship that considered them too hard, were softening and becoming more appropriate for children in successive editions.
However, those stories never failed to have the dark side that still remains, since they should keep their educational and moralizing function. After all, they have been adapted to scare children and make them to stay away from certain dangerous situations.
Today there is a dispute about the need for such cruelty in children’s stories. Those who who defend it , such as child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, that postulated that ‘the struggle with serious difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence’. Children’s literature expert Alberto Ruiz also thinks due to excessive protection to children, telling stories with happy endings can have negative consequences because they can become more vulnerable to life matters.
Instead, Valentín Martínez-Otero, psychologist and education professor explains that it is advisable to make changes in the story in order to remove their negative, cruel or violent aspects and enhance their profits. It is important to provide quality from the linguistic, affective, emotional and moral points of view. The fundamental thing to bear in mind when choosing a story is that it should suit the child’s age and to transmit a message that can be useful in their development.
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