I am a storyteller, so my children were first exposed to fairytales through my own storytelling rather than reading them in books.
My son really loved “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” amended slightly to teach the lesson about not walking into strangers’ houses, and “Little Red Riding Hood,” which I was nervous about telling due to the carnivorous wolf but which my son found hilarious.
But it was when my daughter (18 months at the time) started paying attention to the stories, too, that I re-considered how I was portraying some of the characters to both children in other favorites like “Cinderella” and “Snow White.”
Both of these stories are traditionally told with the endings of the princes falling in love with the women because they are beautiful. This was not what I wanted to teach my daughter (or my son) about the best qualities of these characters or why people should get married. So I started to include other descriptions of the characters, such as Cinderella’s cleverness, skills, and her kindness to animals or Snow White being smart and helpful and gentle. These all, of course, get added to the beauty inherent in some of the stories. After all, the Evil Queen did, undeniably, want to be the fairest of them and, if Snow White really was so beautiful, that was relevant to the story. But I don’t need my children to inherit the Evil Queen’s vanity or shallowness. She is, after all, evil for a reason.
As for amending the Princes’ love in the story, I added in some conversation with Cinderella’s Prince during their long night of dancing (she must be a good dancer, too!) and pushed off Snow White’s happy ending until she and the Prince had spent some time getting to know each other before getting married.
Perhaps it’s idealistic but aren’t fairy tales supposed to be? Magic often solves problems in these stories, not people. With magic, a girl can come back to life with a kiss or a pumpkin can turn into a coach or a boy can find the answer to his poverty at the top of a beanstalk. Magic is valuable for fostering hope and belief and mystery. But it is also idealistic. So, if we can accept the value of magic, it shouldn’t be so hard to accept the values of self-esteem, relationship building, and body image, too.
Starting to teach that at age 1 and 4 certainly isn’t too early. My daughter already thinks that her cuteness will get her things (and sometimes it does) and my son certainly thinks his kisses will get him out of trouble (and sometimes they do). But my children are at the hands of a society that capitalizes on children’s desires to dress like adults, even when it’s not appropriate, and where impetuously getting married is seen as romantic (perhaps because of these fairy tales?) but is not necessarily wise. There are not as many early childhood examples in our society to teach them otherwise.
Of course, my take on the stories are all well and good while I’m telling them but there are already at least five or six fairy tale books in our house plus a DVD of fairy tales that tell the more traditional versions. We’ve explained to the children that people can tell different versions of the same story. At school, my son has even read the story of the “Three Little Pigs” from the wolf’s perspective as well as
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig
A little while ago, my son started to add in his own details to the Cinderella story. Being a subway addict, he declared that the Prince’s palace was in the magnificent Coney Island and Cinderella’s coach was actually a glamorous Q train. When the footmen came looking for the girl with the glass slipper, they had to go to all the Brooklyn neighborhoods, using subways, of course, before they found her. I am pleased that he has found a way to personalize the story but it only cements my theory that my children will personalize them and that it is my job to help them do it with the principles I want to be teaching.
For more on parents struggling with the princess problem, check out one post in which a mom is sure to tell her daughter that princesses can save the world, too, and another in which a mama refuses to let her daughter watch the royal wedding.