Lost Opportunities: Rediscovering Fairy Tales

The power of fairy tales resonates with children around the world. One author vividly remembers how her struggles as a beginning reader evaporated when the second grade reading series contained a wealth of fairy tales from all over the world. One of her favorite stories was the Norwegian tale “East 0' the Sun and West 0' the Moon.” Another author cannot walk across a bridge of any kind—whether it is a small foot bridge, an old railroad bridge, or a covered bridge—without acting out “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” At times the author is the smallest goat, timid and afraid, at other times the disgruntled troll, and finally the strongest goat that teaches the troll a lesson.


Though created long ago, fairy tales provide rich and satisfying stories. Why are classic fairy tales popular with children everywhere? To answer this question, we draw on Bruno Bettelheim and Kieran Egan. Bettelheim believes that children seek meaning in their lives and that much of this meaning comes from the impact parents have on rearing their children and from reading about their cultural heritage. However, much of the reading material that students are subjected to for the purpose of teaching specific skills lacks depth and substance, leaving little or nothing to which children can connect. Bettelheim proposes that, “for a story truly to hold the child's attention, it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life... it must at one and the same time relate to all aspects of his personality” (5).


Fairy tales connect children on an emotional level that can help guide them through the complexities of everyday life. For example, children can relate to the emotions found in “The Fisherman and His Wife.” They admire the fisherman's kindness toward the fish and his reluctance to keep asking the fish for more. However, the greediness of the fisherman's wife connects the children to a time in which they recall exhibiting this same behavior.

Bettelheim states that fairy tales “in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being” (6). Fairy tales deal with deep inner struggles in which children must learn to cope—not only internally but in society at large. These tales teach that struggle is unavoidable, but with perseverance one can emerge victorious. In “The Seven Chinese Brothers” the brothers are confronted with an evil emperor. Each brother possesses an extraordinary power that he uses to help the others through very scary and difficult times to finally defeat the evil emperor.


The rediscovery of age-old tales filled with emotion and meaning can once again enrich the lives of children. Characters in traditional literature are often reflections of ourselves. By becoming these characters and experiencing the emotions found in these stories, children develop a stronger foundation for dealing with their own conflicts. In “Rumpelstiltskin” children experience the feelings of the miller's daughter agreeing to an impossible task, and Rumpelstiltskin possessing the ability to do what seems impossible. In addition, children become the miller, bragging and trying to impress others and finally the king, whose goal it is to accumulate wealth.

In “Hansel and Gretel,” Bettelheim argues, the female character isn't the stepmother at all, but instead the dark side of everyone's mother. He contends that the character is portrayed as the wicked stepmother instead of a stepfather because the mother is usually the person who enforces discipline and teaches children responsibility and other skills necessary for daily living (Nilsen and Donelson, 2009). In addition, Bettelheim contends that “Hansel and Gretel” explores children's fears of growing up and leaving the family, learning to get along in the world and developing and relying on their own talents and wits.


Fairy tales connect children with their essential nature. The tales provide stories rich in cultural heritage and the human condition, stories that not only delight children but also instruct. Nilsen and Donelson constructed a table showing stages of literacy appreciation. They contend that ages birth to kindergarten understand that pleasure and profit come from printed words, including fairy tales. They state, “Children who seem to get the most from their reading are those who have had opportunities for 'talking story' and for having what Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds call grand conversations' both with other children and with adults” (12). This thought seems to foster the need for telling and reading fairy tales.

Bettelheim argues that children can learn more about people's inner problems and solutions to their own problems through fairy tales than any other type of story. Children learn about themselves as they are comforted or frightened. Children also experience the fear and frustration expressed throughout the story. However, when folktale characters overcome fear, defeat the enemy, and emerge victorious, these characters give children heroes, role models, and wise people to emulate (Stoodt-Hill and Amspaugh-Carson 96).


Because fairy tales state problems briefly and the characters are simple, children can understand them. Fairy tales present characters who are good and bad. Children identify with the good and reject the bad. Fairy tales bring order to the world and help children understand themselves better. Finally, fairy tales offer a message of hope. Children learn that although struggles are unavoidable, they can overcome adversity if they confront the situation.

Egan's research makes a compelling case for stories that connect to children's emotions and imagination; these are the stories children remember and enjoy. He suggests that the stories are “built on conflicts between security and danger, courage and cowardice, cleverness and stupidity, hope and despair, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and so on” (Egan 28). In An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, Egan asks us to

think of the classic fairy tales and consider what lies just below their surfaces. What is “Hansel and Gretel” about? It reads like a meditation on the opposites of security/fear. And “Cinderella ?” Rich/poor or vanity/ modesty selfishness/altruism. “Jack and the Beanstalk” and others? Courage/ cowardice, danger/safety wealth/poverty enterprise/timidity cleverness/stupidity familiar/strange, and so on(17).

He holds that young children begin to develop these binary categories at an early age. Despite the often abstract nature of the binary categories, children seem to instinctively understand these binary opposites.


Egan wants educators to consider the role of emotion and imagination in the education of children. Few teachers would argue that, when children have some emotional involvement in the subject that is being taught, learning increases. When teachers use fairy tales, opportunities to connect with children's emotions abound, serving as a springboard for more invested learning.

Both Bruno Bettelheim and Kieran Egan understand the potentially strong emotional connections between children and fairy tales. Yet, their theoretical frameworks are different.

Bettelheim achieved notoriety when he asserted fairy tales had broad psychological implications for children's development. Consequently, his views are heavily influenced by the field of psychology. He makes a strong case that the primary goal of parents and educators is to help children find meaning in their lives. In finding this meaning in life, children must develop inner resources where emotions, imagination, and intellect work together to support and enhance one another. Children who find meaning and understand themselves are better able to understand and relate to others and become contributors to society. Bettelheim suggests that moral development plays a strong role in developing this meaning. Moral education conveys the message that there are advantages to moral behavior. He believes that fairy tales provide the best substance for moral education.

Egan's primary focus is curriculum development that fosters children's imagination and intellect. He views emotionally charged binary categories as early cognitive tools which diminish over time and are replaced by a world view that is much more complex and nuanced. Egan reminds us to consider the prevalence of children's binary thinking when teachers set up opportunities for children to distinguish “big/ little” or “soft/hard.” Furthermore, he quotes Bettelheim who states that children can bring order into their world by dividing everything into opposites (74).


Based on Egan's and Bettelheim's assertions that fairy tales connect children emotionally, we became interested in how classroom teachers were using fairy tales to achieve this. We asked several teachers in preschool through middle school if, how, and why they used fairy tales to connect children with the joys of reading and storytelling as children deepen their conceptual knowledge. We wanted to know whether the potential emotional connections between stories and children were a motivating factor in the use of fairy tales. We were surprised by the responses. Most teachers who responded used fairy tales to enhance a particular skill or set of skills.

A possible reason fairy tales and other children's books are less prevalent may be traced to the quest for improving on standardized tests. According to Killingsworth Roberts and Killingsworth, No Child Left Behind legislation has had a chilling effect on literacy-based reading instruction and the important role of free reading. The lack of real books in the hands of children is not uncommon in today's classrooms as children's literature is increasingly replaced by instructional materials, such as text books and workbooks.

Only two teachers were able to explain why and how they use fairy tales in ways that allude to emotions and the moral dimension. Sally, who teaches kindergarten, uses fairy tales because of their strong story structure and character lessons. As the children become familiar with the “Three Little Pigs,” the story morphs into a commentary on doing your best and what happens when you don't. Sally asks her students if they are doing their best like the little pig that made a house out of bricks. She also draws on cultural variations of this story She provides minimal props so that children can enact the story.

Zane, another teacher, wondered “where we would be without fairy tales and the old nursery rhymes handed down from generation to generation and country to country?” Zane also used props as her students became familiar with old, new, and fractured fairy tales. She blends the classic “Three Little Pigs” with a contemporary story “The Three Little Javelin as” because one of the main characters is a female.


Increasing children's access to fairy tales develops children's learning and imagination by

  1. Encouraging children to cognitively move from what they know to what they don't know, using stories that depict universal emotions which children deeply feel
  2. Engaging children in powerful abstract oppositional concepts embedded in fairy tales
  3. Using affect to help children organize knowledge that is abstract
  4. Enhancing children's knowledge of their cultural heritage
  5. Connecting children emotionally on a universal level through presenting stories of the human experience
  6. Emphasizing that humans have similar needs and problems, and inherent goodness
  7. Deepening children's understanding of themselves and society

Fairy tales appear to have become a marginalized genre. Increased awareness of the value of fairy tales could result in a resurgence of interest in reading. The rediscovery of age-old tales filled with emotion and meaning can once again enrich the lives of children.

Further Reading

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, 1976. Print.; Egan, Kieran. An Imaginative Approach to Teaching. Jossey-Bass. 2005. Print.; Egan, Kieran. "Young Children's Imagination and Learning: Engaging Children's Emotional Response." Young Children 49.6 (1994): 27-32. Print.; Killingsworth Roberts, Sherron, and Elizabeth K. Killingsworth, "The Literacy Legacy of Books That Were Left Behind." Childhood Education 871 (2010): 17-24 Print.; Nilsen, Allen P., and Kenneth L. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Pearson, 2009. Print.; Peterson, Ralph, and Maryann Eeds. Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action. Scholastic, 1990. Print.; Stoodt-Hill, Barbara D., and Linda B. Amspa ugh-Corson. Children's Literature: Discovery for a Lifetime. Pearson, 2009. Print.

Joan Brogan Wipf and Denise Da Ros-Voseles

MLA Citation Wipf, Joan Brogan, and Denise Da Ros-Voseles. "Lost Opportunities: Rediscovering Fairy Tales." Library Media Connection, 30, no. 4, January 2012. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2250330.

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