Morality though storytelling aims to build a discerning mind.

By mathilda heller: culture Columnist

Most children grow up listening to fairy tales or folkloric stories. Some of these are beautiful stories of love and friendship and princesses and castles and magic. But others are tales of violence, fear and punishment.

From Aesop’s fables to the Brothers Grimm to Der Struwwelpeter, fairy tales often aim to warn and induce fear in order to impart knowledge to a child. These didactic tales are often called ‘cautionary tales’ and they appear in most cultures.

Some of the most famous cautionary tales are now less graphic than they were originally. Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood still contain important messages for children – don’t trust strangers, listen to your parents, don’t stray from the beaten path, be kind – but they are now presented in a more subdued manner than they once were.

This leads to the question of whether watered-down tales are as beneficial to children.

The original Hansel and Gretel story involved cannibalism, child abuse, captivity and manipulation. The sanitised versions still feature some of these elements, but the message was doubtless much more powerful before.

Reading children the original stories imbues them with fear, and fear is a powerful teaching tool.

For example, a child reading the Red Riding Hood story would be so scared of the wolf that they would remember the importance of not conversing with strangers, and of listening to their parents. If an adult simply tells their child “don’t talk to people you don’t know”, it is arguably less effective than reading them Red Riding Hood, and thus demonstrating that strangers can be dangerous. Or indeed, that they might eat you.

Cautionary tales make children more alert to external threats.

Some of the stories, such as Cinderella, contain violent punishments for the wrongdoers of the tales. This introduces the idea of comeuppance for children, thus also showing them that there are repercussions for bad behaviour. Cinderella’s stepsisters have their eyes eaten by birds in some versions, as punishment for their evil deeds.

But how effective is this technique of terrifying children into submission?

Scaring children can be effective in teaching them about consequences, and the importance of following rules and moral codes.

It is a method that is more apparent in some cultures than others. And they are especially effective when they feature the children as the wrongdoers, as this makes the stories more relatable.

The German story collection Der Struwwelpeter features a collection of macabre and violent tales, designed to terrify children into behaving well. The stories are again didactic but are perhaps more sinister in nature than The Grimm Fairy Tales because the harm befalls the children.

The stories mostly end in tragedy, with the child protagonists being punished for bad behaviour by being mutilated, killed and traumatised.

One story features a boy called Conrad who refuses to stop sucking his thumb, and as punishment, has it snipped off by the tailor. This violent tale is coupled with gruesome illustrations featuring blood and a severed thumb.

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Cautionary tales lay down a moral code which can be ingrained in a child’s mind from an early age.

In another, the little girl Pauline (ignoring her parents’ warning) plays with matches and is engulfed in flames and burned alive, leaving her cats to mourn her death whilst sitting next to her ashes.

But ah, the flame it caught her clothes,

Her apron, too; and higher rose;

Her hand is burnt, her hair’s afire,

Consumed is that child entire.


Consumed is all, so sweet and fair,
The total child, both flesh and hair,
a pile of ashes, two small shoes,
Is all that’s left, and they’re no use.
[with pics]

One child is washed away and disappears, another starves himself to death, and others are shot or abandoned.

Today, people may view these “cautionary fairy tales” as inappropriate for children as they are overly gratuitous. Whilst there are benefits to warning children about certain behaviours, terrifying them is not always considered healthy.

These fictional universes digress dramatically from society’s normal desire to protect and bubble wrap children. Children’s films carry a certificate, children’s TV programmes are censored, and children’s nursery rhymes are predominantly tame.

And yet, cautionary fairy tales remain some of the most popular and pervasive children’s texts.

Der Struwwelpeter is one of the most popular children’s texts of all time. It has inspired writers from Maurice Sendak to Mark Twain (who translated it into English). The Grimm fairy tales have inspired hundreds of films. Hans Christian Andersen’s tales have been translated into over 125 languages.

For some reason, the stories with the most gore have been the ones that lasted. Some may be less violent now, but they still contain fear and powerful lessons.

So what do people love about them?

Perhaps the answer lies in the ability of these tales to communicate when other methods fail. They are a parent’s tool to teaching. Cautionary tales lay down a moral code which can be ingrained in a child’s mind from an early age.

But the greatest impact of cautionary tales is that on memory. We may not remember the juvenile programmes on CBeebies, but few people forget these stories. Whether it is the fear, violence or tension, these tales, and by proxy, their messages, becoming scored in our minds.

Which means that we carry them forever.

So, in response to whether they benefit children – they don’t appear to do them any harm. In fact, quite the opposite. By introducing them to these important concepts at an early age, we perhaps best prepare them for the trials and tribulations of the adult world.

Cautionary tales cushion the blow. But most importantly, they entertain. Creativity, ingenuity, imagination – these are what really matter.

MACKAYAN: scary fairy tales, good for children?