We grownups are sometimes tempted to imagine childhood as sweet and innocent. (No wonder many children’s stories are sentimental and saccharine.)

But the truth is, being a kid is scary—says Jerry Griswold in his book, Thinking Like A Kid. Remember the terror of going to bed alone in the dark? Bullies in the schoolyard? That one spooky house in town? And maybe worse? I do!

Griswold says the great classics of children’s literature know what it feels like to be a kid, and help kids deal with their fears through fantasy.

In my kid’s novel, The Tale of Hodgepodge, Hodgepodge the Hippo is afraid to travel through the jungle to try to find his lost mother. But his travelling companion, Krakatoa the Parrot-Poet, keeps urging him on, saying things like, “Be brave or live in a cave!” By the end of the journey, Hodgepodge has become the brave, confident hippo he always wished he could be.

In Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where The Wild Things Are, the boy Max is confronted by Wild Things that try to terrify him. But Max “tames them with a magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once.” The Wild Things back down.

Sendak says, “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming the wild things.”

And even though some of us may object to the scariness in fairy tales, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believes these old tales provide an important benefit to kids. He mentions three benefits in his landmark book, Uses of Enchantment:

  • Instead of deceiving children, the tales frankly and honestly acknowledge that evil exists in the world.
  • Instead of belittling or ignoring children’s fears by sweeping them under the rug, fairy tales directly present and address them.
  • These old stories present models and lessons, suggesting that (with pluck and courage and cleverness) children themselves can become heroes and heroines who can master evildoers and their own fears.

In other words, fantasy stories playfully, and in a safe context, give kids permission to “play with” their fears and see themselves as greater than these fears. It’s kind of a game, a little like the game of peek-a-boo that all babies love. Griswold says, “Being frightened is stimulating and thrilling because it wakes up a more vivid self in response.”

The moral? Just to remind us that a kid’s fears are very real to him or her, and to remember that even though nothing eliminates fear, great children’s stories can help kids feel that they are bigger than their fears.