Fairy tales make for Grimm reading. We all remember the stories of ogres and elves, poisoned apples and sleeping princesses, stories which teach children the dangers of walking through (as the Rolling Stones sang) those spooky old woods alone. Perhaps, in a way, they were our first and rather sanitised exposure to many things: to fantasy and imagination, yes, but also to danger and violence. Rites of passage of yesteryear, they’re such memorable parts of our childhood that – following far too much insistence from my wife – even I had to spend an evening watching a fairytale unfold in Russian when we spent a couple of days in St. Petersburg on a cruise many moons ago. I’d better be careful: people are being accused of possible collusion with the Russian government on far flimsier evidence.
“When I grow up”, I hear a chorus of five-year-olds cry, “I want to be a princess”. Sometimes I wonder whether the five-year-olds are more aware that their make-believe is make-believe than the adults who over-obsess about such things. A parent in my constituency complained to her child’s school because she disapproves of Sleeping Beauty. That should have been the end of the matter; an entirely uninteresting and unfounded complaint which should have been politely ignored. But no: there’s nothing in today’s world which can’t be blown out of all proportion in the media, and so now our regional and national media are seriously discussing whether we should stop teaching our children fairy tales.
They have maybe missed one point about stories: they’re not real. Kids know it, adults know it, but those seeking offence everywhere seemingly do not know it. Not so long ago, it was nursery rhymes that felt the brunt of this obsessive desire to re-write our cultural identity and traditions. Remember the furore about Baa Baa Black Sheep, a nursery rhyme bemoaning high taxation, which – because it contained the word ‘black’ was misconstrued as racism. That was one of the most ridiculous political correctness examples of all time, not least because it was a sheep – not a person – being referred to as black, and because the aforementioned sheep was referred to in a positive light, providing much-needed support for the economy only for it to be taxed by those more powerful. The Master and the Dame come out of the nursery rhyme badly, but it’s woolly-minded thinking to blame the sheep. You mutton do that. It’s just a yarn, and if I didn’t know better I’d have thought they were winding us up.
Fairy tales contain the good and the bad, the morality tale and the morally questionable. Overall they probably have a slightly positive net effect on our children’s moral development, but they also do something more: they show something of our culture, passed down from generation to generation. Are we now so prudish that we must condemn every previous generation and erase them from history? Such airbrushing is dangerous, immoral even.
And what if there’s the tiniest bit of gender stereotyping of girls as princesses and boys as princes, of anti-ogre and pro-wizard propaganda? Does that honestly matter? In a free and equal society, nobody is forcing them to do so. I care more about ending actual discrimination than tilting at these ridiculous windmills on a daily basis. If we must address issues of gender imbalance, surely it behoves us to address real ones (such as the scarcity of female scientists, or of male primary-school teachers) rather than inventing a non-existent social evil so that we can slap ourselves on the back and tell ourselves what a good job we’re doing of fighting it.
When a child falls and scrapes their knee, I’ve seen two different parenting styles. One is treat it very seriously, to rush over and go into overdrive trying to help. The other is to be very calming and treat it as no big deal, whilst providing any needed support. When parents are calming, you see the children mirror that: they don’t treat it like an emergency either. When parents panic, so do the children. In that way, the child of the parent who doesn’t overreact learns that scraping their knee isn’t the worst thing that can happen and learns to accept such things as part of life.
What we want is for our children to grow up to accept the rough with the smooth, with the psychological confidence to cope with the little setbacks along the way – and therefore, that as adults they will be able to distinguish minor issues from major ones such as sexual harassment which we should treat with paramount importance. The failure to do this, perhaps, is one of the biggest causes of the ‘snowflake’ mentality, of panic at the slightest hint of a problem. If all must have prizes at school, how will they cope?
Mollycoddling them to such an extent that we even censor their traditional fairy tales? No thanks. I’d rather we raised a generation of gallant knights and fair princesses, than raise a generation of Humpty Dumptys.
-Jonathan Arnott MEP