I’ve been reading Fairy Tales to the kids over the last week or so – these are Brothers Grimm from when I was a child so it lacks idiosyncratic sensitivities that are always present in Disneyified crap. Last night we read Brarskin, a vivid tale where a man sells his soul to the Devil for seven years in return for unending wealth; the catch, and it is mighty, is that he may not wash or comb his hair for seven years.
That’s a tremendous amount of time for grime and hair to build upon your face, your nails growing to grotesque lengths. He acquires himself a wife, one who is simply too innocent to say no when her father offers her to the beast man as a gesture of thanks – and of course, she is beautiful.
Fairy tales are wonderful cautionary tales – great public service announcements for soap, too – but they serve multiple duties. They are so outlandish and caricatures of real life that as a non-religious family it can put so many stories of extraordinary into perspective.
A man swallowed by a large fish; more Biblically correct than to describe it as a whale, is about as plausible as the Devil appearing to a man and buying his essence of self before he has a chance to starve.
There is this ridiculous notion that children of non-religious families can’t possibly have an understanding of morals because they don’t have The Bible, heaven forbid. Morals are taught around dinner tables, in the interactions between family members. “What do you think about that?” is a question I often ask the kids, because it’s all well and good to wag a finger and tell them what is right and wrong, but they need to be able to figure it out themselves.
A list of rules is obviously a good place to start, but kids – and adults – need reasoning skills to figure out the how and why of what makes an action or belief right or wrong. It is entirely far too easy to do harm – out of cowardice, prejudice or rebellion – because it is something we just shouldn’t do because we’ll get in trouble; however, if we can develop the understanding that harming another is wrong because we don’t want want to be treated that way and all beings, human and otherwise, deserve to live without harm from others then the impetus to not do wrong to others becomes that much more poignant.
Fairy tales have these grand punishments for evil-doing. The first thing N asked about Cinderella was how could her father allow the evil step-daughters to treat her so poorly. I don’t know the answer to that, it isn’t evident in the text but it also did not seem fair that Cinderella’s father was banished from the kingdom for his role on her abuse. This was N’s second question, how could he be banished, he is Cinderella’s father. In short, even though her father allowed awful things to happen to Cinderella, N saw space for some sort of resolution.
Fairy tales provide another space for discussing, dare I say, so many issues that it seems like anything and everything with kids.