Ann Landers, the advice columnist who spoke to millions once said that if she were asked to give what she considers to be the most useful bit of advice for all humanity, it would be this:
“Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, “I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.”
Interestingly, that’s a good encapsulation of the theme of many folk and fairy tales.
Hansel and Gretel prevail over a child-eating witch. Little Jack prevails over a raging Giant. Cinderella prevails over her awful step-sisters.
In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says that this is exactly the message that fairy tales deliver to a child’s imagination and sub-conscious:
“…that a struggle against severe difficulties is unavoidable…but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”
Kids know there’s trouble in life. It sometimes haunts their dreams. It finds them at school. It truly is “unavoidable.”
Naturally, we want to protect them, and we should.
But we should also respect them enough to be honest with them about the nature of the world (in an age-appropriate way).
In the first place, I believe they can handle it—usually better than we think they can.
In the second place, we don’t do them any favors by giving them a too-rosy, artificial, unrealistic view of the world. (I suspect that unrealistic expectations about life are at the root of some of the depression and other problems young adults experience.)
This is where folk and fairy tales help. They help kids get a handle on trouble—in an imaginative, enchanting, life-affirming way. They help kids identify with vulnerable characters (like themselves) who go out into the world, face troubles, and emerge victorious.
As Krakatoa the parrot says to Hodgepodge the hippo (in my story, The Tale of Hodgepodge), “Hodgepodge, do you know what’s bigger than trouble? You.”