How fairy tales pit adults against kids

By Donald Haase
March 24, 2010

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Popular discussions of fairy tales often degenerate into generalizations about whether the tales are good for children or bad for children. Before long the "pure and innocent" are being contrasted with the "dark and dangerous," at which point it gets murky whether those characteristics refer to fairy tales or to children themselves. It's no wonder that classic fairy tales in the West have been implicated in a struggle over children and childhood.

Some of the best-known fairy tales involve adults who are driven to acts of abandonment and homicide by children they perceive as threats. Snow White threatens her stepmother's self-image, while Hansel and Gretel threaten their parents' very survival. Other beloved stories revolve around parents' efforts to control their child's natural impulses. The finger-wagging mother of Grimms' Little Red Riding Hood, for example, gives a litany of instructions intended to keep the sweet little thing a sweet little thing—that is, to keep her on the straight and narrow path of innocence through the temptation-filled forest.

These stories—which were invented, told and retold, edited, published, and purchased by adults, not by children—have a lot to tell us about how grown-ups view childhood, how they imagine their relationships to children, and how they struggle to make sense of their fears of children and childhood. They are not merely the fantasies and struggles of a bygone era. We still attempt to define childhood and control our fear of children. The news is full of stories about children—or what we used to call children—being tried and sentenced as adults in the criminal courts. And, like fairy tales, these stories sell.

Donald Haase, Professor of German and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State University, is the editor of Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies and the editor of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales.