Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/what-are-my-children-reading-1.1318829
Published April 2014
As a child, the image of a fairy godmother, in all her Disney glory was etched firmly inside my head. When I looked at my metal mouth (and the food that got stuck in the braces) in the mirror, I wondered if a kindly fairy godmother could just come, wave a wand and poof! I’d have a set of perfect pearly whites. I wondered if the same one could please, please come to school to help with the Math (whisper the answers in my ear) and deal with all those who bullied me. She never came. Obviously.
The image eventually faded away, and I was jolted out of my world of fantasy tales and magical beings into harsh, practical reality. Why did a fairly logical young person ever even harbour such thoughts? If only books played a better role! Fairy tales were loaded with the ‘feel-good’ factor, and felt so complete that my vivid imagination ran away to the moon with them. As my girls grow and discover Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I want to have a close look at the pros and cons of fairy tales. Should I willingly let my girls accept fairy princesses, magic wands, fairy godmothers and witches as a fact of life? My little one has woken up in the night (terrified) a few times dreaming about the ugly and scary witch. The images get stuck in the mind, and I’m not sure I want the valuable real estate of her little developing brain to be occupied by some stupid horrifying sorceress that doesn’t even exist. Then there is the worrying matter of the ‘damsel in distress’. I am unconsciously providing a role model when I show them the beautiful princess with her blond hair, perfect skin, lovely gowns and her big blue eyes. She appears to be perfection personified. Yet she is seldom able to fend for herself, she rarely ever does something daring or intelligent, and is almost always rescued by this wonderful, amazing Prince Charming.
Isn’t there more to this seemingly innocent (and ever-repeated) plot that meets the eye? Am I unintentionally telling my girls that women are nothing if they are not gorgeous and that they invariably need a handsome man to rescue them? Is love really so simple, and is life all about ending up in the arms of Mr Right? One might argue that I am being obsessive about what is essentially harmless but I beg to differ. The entire plot upon which these fairy tales stand is extremely questionable. I can’t help feeling that I am either filling my children’s heads with a bunch of lies, or a lot of confusion. Imagine, telling a little girl to ‘enjoy the story’ but at the same time saying — no the witch isn’t real and neither is the fairy!
I do want them to devour modern day classics like Harry Potter after they have crossed a certain age and can distinguish between reality and fantasy and can appreciate someone like J.K Rowling for her simple yet eloquent style of writing, without worrying if wands are for real.
The power of stories is unique and unparalleled. There is a reason why all the religious scriptures in the world talk about past nations. Because stories affect the human psyche in a way that little else does. Imagine if we were to harness this power to build rather than confuse the thinking of our children, how much that would help in providing them with a sound upbringing! As for me, I fully intend to let my children discover fairy tales, but at the same time I want to make sure they know it’s fantasy, and that way better books that are just waiting to be discovered (including some selected ones by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl) line their bookshelf. And I want to ensure that the bedtime stories I read to them are real, believable and leave them with some kind of lasting benefit.