The season to be frightened, Halloween, is close upon us. Like many parents, you may cringe at your child's request for spooky stories, deeming them too terrifying for young folk. You might even worry that the stories' evil characters send the wrong message. So you forgo the traditional account of Hansel and Gretel for one that ends with the witch becoming a vegetarian. Or maybe you steer clear of these tales altogether -- hoping to ensure that your child will sleep nightmare-free ever after.
But scary tales serve an important purpose, say psychologists and children's literature specialists. Like the late Bruno Bettelheim, PhD, a psychologist best known for his groundbreaking book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, these experts believe that frightening stories can not only provide great entertainment (think of the nail-biting chase scene in Jack and the Beanstalk), they also help kids through key developmental stages.
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."
Still, not all violence and scary events in storybooks are seen as a good thing. For kids ages 8 and up, the Harry Potter series gets Dr. Sipe's thumbs-up: "The stories take place in a moral universe, where evil is punished or at least fought against." On the other hand, tales that don't reward good over evil get his thumbs-down: "When the violence is gratuitous and evil sometimes wins out, kids are left with the frightening feeling that the horror goes on."
Likewise, not all children enjoy frightful tales. On the whole, however, kids tend to be less disturbed by scary books than by scary movies. One reason: Books are less graphic. The illustrations in Little Red Riding Hood, for example, never show the wolf actually eating Grandma. Another reason: Young children who are being read to usually feel safe in a parent's lap.
And finally, books are controllable. "Kids know they can stop on certain pages or close the book when they want," says Dr. Sipe. He recalls hearing about a boy at a New York City preschool who took Jack and the Beanstalk and sat on it to make sure the monster didn't come out. Says Dr. Sipe, "When kids feel in control, the things they fear cease to be scary."
Of course, a child can't wipe out all his fears in a single reading. So, as Halloween approaches and your child begs to be read a certain scary book again, don't try to trick him out of it. Instead, why not treat him to a delicious shiver?
Originally published in the October 2001 issue of Child magazine.