two boys dressed as knightsAs the English writer, G. K. Chesteron observed, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” The value of fairy tales — from stories to books to cartoons — lies in teaching children to cycle through intense emotions and their resolution. However, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Medicine “…exposure to on-screen death and murder could have deleterious and long-lasting effects on children, especially young children.”

For parents who wonder how to start a healthy lifestyle for their kids, is the gruesomeness of this content really appropriate?

In the opening moments of Finding Nemo the title character’s clownfish parents behave like humans expecting a baby: They find a new home, assess the neighborhood, consider baby names and worry whether or not the kids will like them. And then, a terrifying barracuda brutally kills Nemo’s mom as she attempts to secure the safety of her eggs, killing all of Nemo’s brothers and sisters too.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) studied 45 of the top-grossing children’s films compared to the top 90 adult dramas. Noting that the violence in cartoons outweighed that in even such iconic films as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, What Lies Beneath, Pulp Fiction, The Departed and Black Swan the research highlights three interesting trends in animated films: (1) Important characters in children’s films are 2.5 times more likely to die, (2) those characters are also 3 times more likely to be murdered and (3) parents of main characters are 5 times more likely to die.

These frightening, disturbing and potentially traumatizing movie experiences, however, are an extension of the tradition of fairy tales that was established over 200 years ago with the publication of the Grimm brothers’, Kinderund Hausmärchen. In 1976, child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, published what became an award-winning book that examined the symbolic, emotional, and therapeutic relevance of the violent Grimm tales in children’s development. The Uses Of Enchantment offered four key points summarizing the benefits of fairy tales for children:

1. Fairy tales help children to project, thus fosters their development
2. Fairy tales offer knowledge of life from the inside
3. Fairy tales help to dispel fears
4. Fairy tales correspond to the child’s thinking and experience

While it’s possible to argue, as the University College London researchers do, that damage can come from children’s exposure to violent stories, Bettelheim suggests a persuasive paradigm regarding the benefits of how violent stories offer children a safe space to learn about life, loss and fear management. “If our fear of being devoured takes the tangible shape of a witch, it can be removed by burning her in the oven!,” he wrote. Introducing children to fear, making them face it and then seeing a creative resolution, teaches kids a process for managing the intensity of fearful feelings.

Indeed, even the UCL researchers admit “it is also possible that such exposure could have a positive impact on children’s adjustment to and understanding of death, if treated appropriately. Films that model appropriate grief response could help children gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of death.”

Melissa Taylor, a teacher with an M.A. in education and children’s book author agrees with the positive side of how fairy tales help children cope with their fears. In a post on her blog, Imagination Soup she highlights the importance of fairy tales’ ability to model problem solving, and how they build emotional resiliency by providing a safe space in which children can discover that bad things happen and how to fix these bad things.

The over-the-top intensity of fairy tale-like material (equal to children’s imagination) supplies a creative and imaginative learning environment for children to vicariously experience fear, and the triumph of living through it; a powerful, memorable and immensely useful lesson. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.” Albert Einstein quipped. Not a surprising suggestion from the scientist who believed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

By engaging a child’s imagination in learning how to face, interact with and overcome fear through a fictional scenario, fairy tales and their animated counterparts teach children important skills for future real-life events.

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