Historically, fairy tales have been critical to children’s values and moral development. Their goal is to communicate a value. You can learn quite a few things from a childhood spent with Grimm fairy tales, Greek myths, Arabian legends, and the classics of Hans Christian Andersen.
What do we learn from them, more specifically? Life is hard; good people can suffer, and true love’s course is never smooth.
Fairy tales never fail to get values across, positive or negative. It does not always happen in the best way for someone who’s growing up. They can send the wrong message.
This article will explore the morals and values as communicated in the most popular fairy tales, myths, and legends.
Peter Pan: Change will always come whether you want it to or not
Peter wanted to stay lost and immature forever, but his girlfriend Wendy wasn’t on that wavelength. She grew up and took the boys back to London with her, leaving him alone in Neverland.
We see this often in life. One partner matures faster than the other and moves on. If they stay together, they fight often.
Some say the moral of Peter Pan is that girls always mature faster. This is not an accurate message to send. It can be the other way around.
The Three Little Pigs: Hard work pays off
This fairy tale is about three little pigs who went “out into the world to build their homes and seek their fortunes”. Regrettably, two of them built their houses out of weak materials. The moral is that laziness doesn’t pay off in the long run. You might save time and money, but shortcuts will eventually catch up with you.
The Tortoise and the Hare sends a similar message. The slow, but consistent tortoise ends up beating the fast, but erratic hare.
Alice in Wonderland: Sometimes you just need to take the risk
Have fun and throw caution to the wind! What does Alice do? Drink from a bottle with undiscernible content, follow the white rabbit, and go to parties with strangers.
Some people place great value on the ability to take risk. This includes people without this ability. You are either a risktaker or risk-averse. It doesn’t matter; either way, you need to be able to handle the consequences of any risk.
If you’ve hit rock bottom, on the other hand, what’s the worst that can happen?
Little Red Riding Hood: Einstein was right?
It might be a case of insufficient experience rather than stupidity in this case. The moral here is to be careful when placing your trust in someone. Strangers who seem too kind are a red flag. So is someone you know who is being kind, but typically isn’t.
The Little Mermaid: Extreme sacrifice isn’t worth it
She loved him with all her heart. She changed everything about herself, gave up her voice, and left her family. Andersen’s heartbreaking story sends an important message: you can’t make someone fall in love with you. It teaches girls that you don’t always get the man of your dreams, try as you might.
Tristan and Isolde: Love is forever
This fairy tale focuses on an eternal value: love. It is the love triangle to end all. Tristan and Isolde fell in love and couldn’t stop seeing each other even after Isolde married Tristan’s uncle. When they were caught, Tristan was killed, and Isolde died heartbroken. Sometimes you really don’t forget an old flame.
The Princess and the Pea: Don’t judge a book by its cover
In this tale, a queen is looking for a girl to marry her son. She comes across a disheveled, decidedly unroyal young woman, but has a “feeling” about her. To test her intuition, she invites the girl to spend the night in the castle and hides a pea under her mattress. Why? Only a true aristocrat would feel such slight discomfort.
In the morning, the girl complains about the uncomfortable mattress. The queen is then certain this is the right person for her son.
The tale tells one of the oldest lessons: people are more than their clothes and hair. Another example of a fairy tale communicating this value is the Frog Princess.
She kissed a frog which turned into a handsome prince. Even people with a modest appearance deserve a chance.
The Emperor’s New Clothes: Overemphasizing appearance
Perhaps no fairy tale makes a more poignant representation of how damaging the focus on pride, vanity, and image can be than The Emperor’s New Clothes. This story is about an emperor who is obsessed with his clothes. He’s approached by two scammers and becomes besotted with what they promise to create for him: splendid new clothes that are more beautiful than anything anyone has ever seen. Superficial as he is, he believes them when they say the fabric of the new clothes will be invisible to ordinary people.
The emperor does not see his new clothes, but he’s too embarrassed to admit it. He fears he is unfit to praise their glory and “wears” them to a grand procession. Everyone pretends to be delighted with these clothes. Eventually, a child voices the collective thought: the king is naked.
The moral? People become gullible and foolish when they are overly concerned with clothes, hair, and trivial matters in general.
Is this still valid in the age of photoshopped Instagram models? More than ever. You need more than a great appearance (which can be faked) to be successful and make a difference. Self-improvement comes from genuine interactions and acknowledging reality.
The Elves and the Shoemaker: Be charitable for its own sake
A group of elves decides to keep a shoemaker from going out of business. They make shoes for him to sell every night. One time, the shoemaker sees them working and he and his wife want to return the favor. They make their secret helpers some clothes. The tale communicates the moral of doing things for people without expecting anything in return.
This isn’t to say you should be generous without any limits. Help only those who deserve it.
The role of a destructive family environment
The story “Love Like Salt” is about a king who sends his daughter away for saying she loves him “as much as food loves salt.” Fairy tales usually have evil stepmothers as antagonists, but this one shows biological fathers can be just as vicious.
Versions of this tale are found everywhere, from Indian to Italian literature. It’s believed to have inspired Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear.’
Another example of destructive parenthood is “Hansel and Gretel.” The children become independent after being abandoned by their father and defeating an evil witch, who symbolizes the suffocating parent.
This tale upholds the value of resourcefulness and supportive relationships. The children parent each other to survive. The witch would have devoured them easily if they had been alone. While the ending is positive, it draws attention to how painful the absence of a safe family environment can be. Suffocating or absent parents inhibit their children’s development greatly.
Cinderella: Stereotypes’ damaging effects on young women
Some depictions of morals can be harmful, as evidenced by Cinderella’s struggles. She endures her stepmother and stepsisters’ incessant bullying with little to show for it, ultimately, as she ends up being “saved” by the prince. This communicates the message to girls that there will always be a man to save them, which definitely isn’t something to rely on.
Cindarella does have some accurate portrayals of human interaction and positive messages. Your bully could be jealous of you. You are probably nicer, smarter, prettier, or simply better than them. Or perhaps you’ve just caught their attention randomly and their bullying has nothing to do with you as a person.
Ultimately, Cindarella sends mixed messages. She is whisked away by the handsome prince because she fits the slipper. You should not need to fit a specific mold or look a certain way to have a chance at a better life. The story does place emphasis on persistence as a value, but not in the most constructive way possible.
Aschenputtel vs. Cindarella
Aschenputtel, the German version of Cindarella, is a bit more promising in that it communicates self-reliance. Aschenputtel gets help from a white bird that perches on a tree she grew on her mother’s grave. While this is still outside assistance, she did nourish the tree that attracted the bird. The German Cindarella played a role in her happy ending.
One last message ascribed to Cindarella: networking is important. Without her fairy godmother, she might still be sweeping cinders. While many fairy tales emphasize skill, hard work, and talent as the right values to succeed, friends or acquaintances in high places can be equally indispensable.
Cupid and Psyche: The power of positive change
This article started with the inevitability of change. The tale of Cupid and Psyche shows that change can be positive. More specifically, making amends is always possible.
Psyche wronged Cupid a number of times, but her persistence to find him pays off. They live happily ever after and she even gains immortality.
The positive takeaway is that no mistake is fatal. You should try to fix it. On the other hand, searching for a man all over the world? It’s not exactly for everyone.
A promising future for fairy tales?
So how accurately are morals depicted in fairy tales? They send a powerful message to children, but not always the right one. On the plus side, modern-day tales are evolving promisingly in their portrayals of relationships, friendships, and female characters.
Frozen presents a powerful relationship between two sisters, which speaks about coping with mental illness indirectly. The romantic plot is secondary to this.
Elsa can’t control the magical powers she’s born with. She has become isolated because everything she touches turns to snow and ice. She must hide her ability like the mentally ill are forced to pretend there’s nothing wrong with them so society does not cast them out.
Likewise, Maleficent adds depth and relatability to the infamous villainess’ character rather than resort to the overused jealous older woman in “Sleeping Beauty,” a damaging stereotype that perpetuates ageism.
Last but not least, there is Merida: the first princess, whose story does not revolve around finding a prince or getting married. This sends an excellent message to children.
Fairy tales are a crucial, often inevitable part of childhood, but adults shouldn’t disregard them. They sometimes send positive messages, but can also perpetuate undesirable stereotypes. Reflecting on these issues is important. We must consider their direct or indirect influence on how people grasp and develop relationships. This way, we are better prepared to discuss these issues with children so they have an objective understanding of the messages the best-known fairy tales send.