With the upcoming release of the “Snow White and the Huntsman”, movie, the issue of violence in fairytales comes up again. Are fairy-tales too violent for children?
It is often suggested to me that there is no difference between hearing a violent fairytale and seeing a violent movie made from the same fairytale. That’s simply wrong.
In short, fairytales are not too violent for children when properly told to them in an emotionally safe environment by a trusted source who has the mental welfare of the child in mind. Snuggled in with Daddy telling stories is a great place to be safe. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
The deeper answer really comes in asking the right question. The correct question is: “Are fairytales in some movies too violent for children?” That answer is simple: Yes, movies that create violent images based on fairytales are too violent for young children.
We need to remember that children do not hear and see traditional fairytales told by a storyteller (parent or professional) in the same way they see and hear a movie playing before them. In mentally processing fairytales, children only process the amount of violence their minds want to handle. A child hearing that the huntsman sets out to kill Snow White sees in their mind only what they want to see. For a small child, the permanence of death is unknown and unknowable. Nestled within the safety of the storytelling experience, they may know something “bad” could happen but they also know that they are safe. This safety along with their brief life experience creates the filter for children to understand the story at a level their minds find acceptable. They see what their minds want them to see.
The problem with fairytales and violence comes from children watching another person’s vision of that violence. Big-screen movie violence leaves no safety zone for the child to process the story. In a movie, the huntsman goes out to kill Snow White in non-filtered images and sounds of the violent looks and shouts, the sharp knife and a physical altercation.
A movie, for small children, is also an overwhelming experience of sight and sound, permanently preserved in its final form. In the movie theater, there is no place for the young child to escape the images and noise. Their fear-filter is overrun and no longer in control.
Conversely, a storyteller changes his or her story based on how the audience is reacting. For example, if I am telling a “scary” fairytale to a group of children, I will be watching my audience respond. If I see, from the children’s reactions, that some portion of the story is causing stress or fear, I will change the way I am telling the story. I will adjust the words, the pacing, the emotional non-verbal cues as I go along. True storytelling is created with the audience as it happens so it is never the same experience from audience to audience.
The role of violence in fairytales, when told to children, is to help them process fear. While we’d like our children to never be afraid or to experience violence, this is simply not a reality. With each hearing of some violence in a fairytale, the child’s unconscious controls the response as “I have had this fear before. I am safe here in this moment. I can survive this.” Each time, the child learns a bit more about how to grow up and how to deal with complex emotions.
Learning to conquer fear and to take actions is a human need. Without this overcoming, we would still be hiding in stone-age caves or extinct. When the storytelling audience is a bit older, perhaps in the early teenage or preteen years, they will usually ask for scary stories. Being scared, asking to be frightened, demonstrates their own growing mastery of fear. As well, this age group also enjoys the “justice,” no matter how warped that justice is to modern minds, that usually is delivered to evildoers in the fairytale.
Now, I am not advocating a free-wheeling give-young-children-all-the-fairytale-violence-you-want approach. As a caregiver, teacher or parent, you must judge the readiness level of the children in your care. While I believe that the scary portions of fairytales can actually be beneficial to growing children, there is a time and place for each child to embrace these stories. Use wisdom and caution in this process.
Fairytales help a child to learn the life-lesson, “I can get through this.” In many cases, the message is “We can get through this.” Isn’t that a good lesson for people of any age?