Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fairytales and fantasy

"In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected."
--- Charles Dickens

More than a year ago, someone told me that he didn't allow his son fairytales. He told me his reason and I told him he was mistaken, but he didn't believe that I actually knew what I was talking about, and I left it at that. About a year later, this father was taking a walk with his son when they came across a cat. He greeted the cat with a hello, how are you. His son's reaction was to stare at him in puzzlement as to why his father was talking to a cat. And the father's reaction was pride that his son had "grown up".

His son was barely three years old. 

I felt sad, even pity. A three year-old not being able to imagine talking to a cat? Over the past year, his parents had also made it known that their son does not appreciate pretend play or even artwork (and so we would steer away from such activities to accommodate him when planning get-togethers for the children). Their son's mentality is probably a product of many factors, but I would bet that the deprivation of fantasy and fairytales is one contributing factor.

The parents' stance stemmed from their view that Maria Montessori was against the concept of fantasy and fairytales. They believe that she forbade "fantasy" although she encouraged "imagination".

I can accept that parents have different ideas on parenting. What annoys me is when parents adopt methods based on gross misunderstandings.

It is well-known that it is a myth that Maria Montessori ever said such things. Unfortunately, this myth has also been perpetrated by many people, including some schools holding themselves out as Montessori schools. Still, the fact that many people believe it to be true, doesn't make it true. All Maria Montessori said was that we should not take fairytales and fantasy too seriously, and that we should be careful of stories that are too frightening. Montessori's concern was that a young child would believe any fantasy story as the truth or, if the story was too scary, that the child would have nightmares.

"Fairy tales are very important literature. If I could I would make a collection of all the fairy tales in the world, so that grown-ups could know them better ... They are beautiful little stories for children, but not in place of this concentration on work." (Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World. p. 46)
That's as far as Montessori's advice went. To ban fairytales and fantasy, and to say that Maria Montessori said to do so is ridiculous. It's akin to refusing to cross the road simply because there are risks involved, even though those risks are manageable.

If you are concerned that your child cannot tell the difference between what's real and what's not, just tell him/her the story is pretend. Actually, the more "fantastical" and "unreal" the fairytale is, the less likely your child will take it to be real anyway. Children are not as dumb as some people think.

For me myself, I have no problems if Ryan thinks that the Sesame Street characters are real or if he thinks that Santa Claus and Batman exist. To me, that's the privilege and prerogative afforded to a three year-old and it is an important stage in his life.

"There is no need to be afraid of the children's fantasies, they represent a stage in development, it is a necessary stage and it is usually outgrown without difficulty."
--- Child

If you believe the myth about what Montessori said then it's not just fairytales you should be banning. It should be anything that has a fantasy element in it. It should be bye-bye to Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Thomas the Train, superheroes, Popeye, Garfield, Smurfs, gnomes, pixies, elves, witches on brooms, animals that talk and outwit each other, Sesame Street, Santa Claus, the Easter Rabbit, Peter Pan... and that's just the "western" stuff. The East has its fair share of folklore and fairytales - there are many tales, whether modern or centuries-old, of talking animals, magical beings, and mythical creatures. Modern versions include Hello Kitty, Doraemon and tons more. Then there's pretend play, nursery rhymes, ... Disneyland?

Many of the best-known fairytales come to us from literary sources, eg. books written by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Aesop, even Enid Blyton (eg. The Magic Faraway Tree, Noddy) and by modern authors such as Julia Donaldson, Maurice Sendak, Dr Seuss, and many, many other respected children's authors. There are movies built entirely on fantasy (Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Madagascar, etc) and videos too (educational videos included). And then there is the world of theatre - musicals like The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Cats.

The consequence of believing the myth is therefore enormous. Like that boy, children lose out on a rich and valuable resource. They may find it difficult to sustain a period of pretend play and may be unable to appreciate other types of creative pursuits. In addition, their impaired ability to come up with creative solutions and ideas may adversely affect their abilities in math, science, and other "academic" pursuits.

No wonder then, that Albert Einstein's famously quoted advice to an anxious mother who asked him how her son could become a scientist was as follows:

"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Einstein supposedly credited his genius to his mother's reading of folk and fairy tales to him as a child. Einstein also said, "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking."

Apart from showcasing creativity and imaginative (plus fantastical) elements, the value of a fairytale lies in how it presents moral values and ideals in a way which the child can easily understand. Fairytales clearly demonstrate the difference between good and evil, what is ethical/moral and what is not. In every reaction which the child has to the tale, he gains another layer of vicarious experience which sets his character more firmly in the mould of right or wrong. Every sympathy, every aversion, every conclusion, helps to give direction to his personality.

The "facts" used to tell the story - the mythical unicorn, the magical witch, the talking animals and monsters, the big bad wolf, the fantasy of a a pauper becoming a princess - do not matter. The framework is simply a safe and fun medium for the introduction of difficult concepts, for example concepts of morality, danger and even death. For example, in the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the concept of stranger danger is introduced in a way that is accessible to and easily understood by little children. In the modern story of the Snail and the Whale (by Julia Donaldson), children are introduced to the concept of friendship and kindness. Fairytales give the children experiences which they may never have had and, in doing so, provide valuable lifelong lessons.

"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life."
--- Johann C. Friedrich von Schiller

As for the supposed distinction between fantasy (bad) and imagination (good), this is another erroneous conclusion. In reality, Montessori never used the word "fantasy". She spoke Italian and the Italian word she used was more akin to "daydreaming" or, in our local lingo, "stoning". She felt that the child usually drifted off mentally because he was not being engaged in interesting activities. Thus, she was not against "fantasising" and certainly, she did not distinguish between fantasy and imagination. She was simply against neglecting the child and not giving the child opportunities to develop his/her potential.

That boy's father's attempt at explaining the distinction was that, playing with plastic toys and cartoon characters was to delve into fantasy and should be discouraged, while playing with wooden toys and pretending to slice wooden fruit was using imagination and should be encouraged. The boy's mother couldn't explain the distinction at all.

I'm sure you agree that the father's explanation is completely illogical and downright ridiculous. Try that on any rational-minded person and he'll probably look at you as if you've gone bonkers. Anytime there is a talking animal, or a toy or inanimate object coming to life, or a superpower or magic being wielded, that's imagination AND fantasy working hard for you. It doesn't matter if it's a toy or a book or a movie. It doesn't matter if the toy is made of plastic or wood, if the book was published this century or last, or if the movie is about talking animals or beanstalks that grow overnight up to the clouds. It's all fantasy, in its full glory. All borne from someone's rich and unrestricted imagination.

As the little boy's parents could not themselves understand or logically explain the distinction, they were inconsistent in their application. Thus, the child is forbidden the tale of Snow White but allowed the Chinese tale of animals climbing on top one another to reach the clouds. The child is forbidden the tale of the Three Little Pigs but allowed to read the tale of The Gruffalo (incidentally, the tale of The Gruffalo was inspired by a Chinese fairytale). The child is forbidden Barney the Purple Dinosaur but allowed to "feed" his wooden toy crocodile.

Still, although the little boy had some small exposure to fairytales (despite his parents not realising it), he could not reap the benefits, because his parents did not understand the purpose and value of fantasy and fairytales. They crafted their son's exposure with a different purpose and the true value of the fairytale was not utilised - the creative elements were not absorbed and the moral/ethical lessons on right and wrong were ignored.

I think the child was probably so confused that he just stopped imagining altogether. After all, how would a three year-old be able to decide what he could or could not imagine? If you gave him some wooden fruit to cut, what's to stop him from imagining that the fruit could shout out to him, "Stop!" Would he be able to tell himself, no I shouldn't be imagining that because it's not realistic? 

A child uses his imagination to create many scenarios, some may be fantastical, some may be grounded in reality. Why would you want to limit and restrict your child's imagination to only that which is real? This man's son could not imagine talking to a cat, because that's the stuff of fantasy-based imagination. But I'll bet that the creator of Garfield has nothing to be ashamed about. Moreover, what is not real to us now, may be real in the future. The impossible can be made possible, with the power of fantasy. If we all shut ourselves off from fantasy, there would be no inventions, no medical advances, no new methodologies, no new fashion, no explorations - we'd all be stuck in the Stone Age, believing that the world is flat, man could never reach the moon and women cannot wear trousers.

Typically, children deprived of fantasy and fairytales are limited by their parents who see and understand the world in terms of material gain and practical use - people who tend to measure the worth of all teaching in terms of strictly intellectual and "practical" products. That is certainly one way to create an adult, for better or for worse, but, in my view, it's a poor way to bring up a child.

"The diet of babes cannot be determined by the needs of grown-ups. A spiritual malnutrition which starves would soon set in if adult wisdom were imposed on children for their sustenance. The truth is amply illustrated by those pathetic objects of our acquaintance, the men and women who have never been boys and girls."
---Henry Suzzalo

Ok, I think I’ve made my point. You may not agree with me, that's perfectly ok, but please have a better reason than a myth and a misunderstanding.
It is a drastic step to rob your child and to rid his childhood of fantasy and fairytales, so you better have, not just a reason, but a darn good reason for doing so.


Shann said...

Leona, like I've said before, fairytales usually ends with happy endings. Who in the world doesn't hope for a good ending? I even feel that fairytales to an extend gives ppl adults alike HOPE. Some will argue that happy endings in fairytales only happen to pretty and beautiful ppl (Cinderella, little mermaid etc...) but then came shrek! ; )

btw, ern talks to all her pretend friends at home, be it her soft toys, hello kitties, princesses .... And it definitely aids her in her conversational skills. ; )

it's a very good post babe! Hope that father of the boy gets it....

Sherlyn said...

That's pretty sad...My 20 month old son is actually behind in speech development so his paediatrician recommended more pretend play...

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