What Lessons Do Scary Stories Teach Kids?
It's natural for children, at various ages, to worry about being less loved than a sibling, starting school, and perhaps worst of all, being lost or abandoned. "Nothing is scarier than the thought of getting separated from your parents or having your parents die," says Lawrence Sipe, PhD, a professor of children's literature at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. Rather than instilling these fears in children, fairy tales actually help kids face the fears they already have -- and vanquish them.
Take the tale of Hansel and Gretel: Children who are read this story can explore their emotions concerning abandonment while at the same time experience the vicarious thrill of fending for themselves and emerging victorious. Dr. Bettelheim deemed the tale particularly significant for kids around age 5, because that's when they take their first real steps into the world and need reassurance that they'll be all right.
Other tales help kids wrestle with their negative impulses, such as greed and envy. In Cinderella, for example, the wicked stepsisters may embody children's own feelings of sibling rivalry, thus allowing the story to become a stage for an internal struggle against envy.
"When children read or hear fairy tales, they project the good parts of themselves onto the hero or heroine and the bad parts onto the witch figure," says Sheldon Cashdan, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and author of The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales. "Then every time the witch dies, it magically restores children's faith in their ability to conquer their own troublesome emotions."