Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Children, Fairy Tales, and Richard Dawkins

So last month, Richard Dawkins, world-famous evolutionary biologist and atheist, started a brouhaha when he essentially said fairy tales are harmful to children. See the article at Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: 'I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism'. He has since backtracked a little--he was musing, not demanding--when even his faithful adherents balked at his statement. But the media hasn't let up and lots of articles are a result.

Dawkins admitted that he had once questioned whether a "diet of supernatural magic spells might possibly have a detrimental effect on a child's critical thinking."

But he added: "I genuinely don't know the answer to that, and what I repeated at Cheltenham is that I think it is a very interesting question. I actually think there might be a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child's critical thinking ... Do frogs turn into princes? No they don't. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true ... So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility."

He added: "Fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … Santa Claus again could be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true. Now isn't that a valuable lesson? Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have had the desired effect in some cases, because after children learn that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God."

I obviously don't believe fairy tales are harmful to children. I also believe in knowing your child and deciding what they can or cannot handle. But I really don't have the inclination to enter into this particular fray with a longer discussion. My life's work is about this.

But what I would find interesting would be a study that compared the early life experiences of children who felt betrayed when they learned the "truth" about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and such versus those who were sad perhaps, but moved on quite easily, rather taking it as a step into adulthood, being let in on the secret, per se.

The latter reaction, or reporting of it, has been my more common experience when I've discussed this over the years with various people. The only person I can personally think of who was perhaps devastated was my own grandfather--one of his few happy childhood memories was staying up all night in the hayloft watching for Santa before falling asleep and missing him. He never admitted to devastation upon learning about Santa but there was a hint of it in the story which he told for humor, the loss of a happy outlet in what was a rough childhood, a childhood for which we received virtually no stories beyond playing sports and some farm chores. He did end up an atheist and occasional agnostic depending on the day. No scientific study and just anecdotal stories, but I have personally seen correlations to how the "truth" was discovered--and how fervently it was espoused by the adults prior to the "enlightenment"--to have a greater impact than the stories themselves.

Since SurLaLune is devoted to education about fairy tales, many of these articles and interviews will be helpful to those who are reading and writing about children and fairy tales. So I thought I would gather a few articles here.

Here we go:

Richard Dawkins is wrong to dismiss the power of fairytales by Marina Warner. Warner is another person who has devoted her life to fairy tale studies among other things. Her book, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, is must-read reading for anyone devoted to fairy tale studies.

When Dawkins remarks that besides science, everything else is "a second-rate explanation of existence", he can't really mean what this implies: that imaginative culture, however speculative and unverifiable, has little illuminating effect. You can criticise fairytales for a lack of ethics (does Aladdin deserve his fortune?). You can criticise this version or that for vile ideology (antisemitism in Grimm; female beauty as the ultimate good; rank consumerism; delight in cruelty). You can deplore the wishful thinking as peddling illusions. But literature and story-telling are in the paradoxical business of making things up to make us feel a little better, even as they confront the worst.

Dawkins's attack on fairytales has been reported unfairly – he was musing rather than laying down the law. But you can't attack the wonder tale for reinforcing belief in God! On the contrary, the agents of fairytale enchantments – Puck, genie, fairy godmother – act outside any existing scheme of moral or religious salvation. Besides, magic has its own history and belief its seasons, and children today are very canny – they know the difference between believing in earnest and believing in play. The crowd queuing at King's Cross to push the luggage cart through the wall to Platform 9¾ and board the train to Hogwarts don't believe it's there; but they revel in the pleasure of let's pretend.

Writer Lauren Child discusses Richard Dawkins' claims that fairy tales can be harmful to children at BBC Radio 4 Today

I don't think they are anything to do with supernaturalism – I'm sure he [Dawkins] must know that. It's about a way of working things out. Children are always using the imaginary to work things out. Fairy stories are not so much about the magic, they are about figuring out the world.

Richard Dawkins should know it pays to believe in fairy tales by Jenny McCartney

Yet while critical thinking is very important – operating in the questing mind – I can’t help thinking that fairy tales do something just as essential to a child’s development: they encourage intuition, which is experienced in the gut.

There is something fundamentally captivating about the best-known fairy tales, as if their stories of menace and survival are hard-wired to human instinct. That is why they are so often a playground for psychoanalysts. Their landscape is mined with treachery masquerading as innocence: devouring wolves dress up as grandmothers, and friendly old ladies proffer poisoned apples. Children are pushed into positions of extreme self-sufficiency, surviving on luck and wits. The tales derive from an era when childhood in the West was stalked at closer quarters by poverty and abandonment.

Fairy tales carry just as much cruelty and psychological complication as reassurance – which is why authors and film-makers keep discovering fresh ways to retell them, from Snow White and the Huntsman to the most recent Maleficent, which beckons in Angelina Jolie to reinterpret the vindictive fairy in Sleeping Beauty.

Richard Dawkins: Fairy Tales, Father Christmas May Harm Children; Prompts Angelina Jolie to Respond by ANUGRAH KUMAR

Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie responded to British atheist professor Richard Dawkins' comments that fairy tales and belief in Father Christmas may harm a child's development, saying "a little magic" helps impart important moral lessons.

"There are morals in these stories and you want a little magic – it's important to have something that we're a little bit in awe of," Jolie, 39, told the Psychologies magazine. "Kids grow up fast enough these days, so let's allow them to have a little bit of childhood for as long as they can."

Jolie, who is raising her six children, was responding to the 73-year-old evolutionary biologist's talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this week where he said it is "rather pernicious to instill in a child the view that the world is shaped by supernaturalism."

"The other day, one of the kids lost a tooth and I talked about the tooth fairy," Jolie continued. "Half of them are old enough to think: 'What are you talking about,' yet they're still not sure there isn't something. And I'm not lying to them. I say, 'I really can't tell you. I don't really know. Mothers are sworn to secrecy.'"

Why we need fairy tales by MANDY HAGER

Yet as a scientist he must know that the reverse is true. It is through allowing the mind to wander into thoughts and worlds not yet colonised by others' theories or expectations that we have made the most spectacular leaps forward in knowledge and understanding. In fact, imagination and speculation have always been scientists' friends. Archimedes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Lovelace, Carson . . . all the brilliant thinkers who have given the world so much started with a thought that must have sounded something like "What if . . .?"

Discovery and invention are merely the imagination made real after fancy takes flight. In fact, Einstein said "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."


  1. Geez, this Dawkins guy sounds like a real load of fun. If you write off fairy tales, you might as well write off all the arts and humanities, because they're all acts of imagination.

  2. This is very helpful, thank you for sharing!

  3. I accept evolution as a given and that natural selection is not only rational but proven too. However it's not clear to me why Dawkins appears to apply a value system to the processes of natural selection. We're characterised as 'biological robots' with an illusion of free will and, as such, the human tendency to tell stories must have a biological imperative.

    This means that story-telling has a genetic value that doesn't require Dawkins' approval. Fairy tales can spread moral values that benefit societies and define communities. Monsters in the woods and beasts in the waters have served to protect young kids from dying from misadventure.

    Whilst I'm not personally a believer in 'supernaturalism,' it's hard to ignore the fact that such beliefs have played a part in defining our place in life for as long as we've been able to use oral language.

    Arguably, Dawkins wouldn't have the platform he has without our palaeolithic ancestors telling stories and oral histories.