Old fairytales too ‘dark’ for modern mums

Classic fairytales, such as Snow White and Rapunzel, are “too dark” for children, say British parents surveyed by TheBabyWebsite.com.

* Snow White seems to have fallen by the wayside because the Wicked Witch was deemed too frightening – but a handful won’t read it because they feel the dwarf reference is not PC.
* Rapunzel is considered ‘too dark’ and Cinderella has been dumped because she is forced to do the housework and sit on cinders.
* A third of parents won’t read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ because she walks alone through woods and finds her grandmother has been eaten by a wolf.
* A fifth of parents don’t like to tell their children about ‘The Gingerbread Man’ as he gets eaten by a fox.

The top ten bedtime stories of 2008: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mr MenThe Gruffalo, Winnie the Pooh, Aliens Love Underpants, Thomas and Friends from The Railway Series, The Wind in the Willows, What a Noisy Pinky Ponk!, Charlie and Lola and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Children face their fears through fairytales, argued Bruno Bettelhim in The Uses of Enchantment.

My daughter insisted on hearing Hansel and Gretel as her bedtime story. She’d wake up with a nightmare — and demand the story the next night. Finally, I created a feminist version: Gretel says, “I refuse to let the witch eat my brother. That’s not OK. I’m going to fight back!” She shoves the witch in the oven and liberates her brother. Eventually, my daughter was able to move on.

About Joanne


  1. dangermom says:

    I guess I’m on Bruno’s side; in our family we think there’s a lot of value to the old fairy tales. I read my girls Wanda Gag’s edition of Grimm’s tales when they were little (3-5), and then they graduated to the picture books and collections that tell, pretty much, the older versions. We’re all bowdlerizing to an extent–I’m not a big fan of the “original” Sleeping Beauty, you know, the one where she wakes up giving birth to twins–but I think some death is fairy tales isn’t a bad thing.

    I’m curious about the age range the parents are thinking of. Fairy tales like Rapunzel aren’t for 3-year-olds, like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is, which is why I used Gag’s book first. Like anything, there’s an age range, and you start with Goldilocks and the Three Bears or something and move up to Rapunzel and Snow White at 5+.

  2. speedwell says:

    The objecting parents are just too lazy to approach the issues with their children in a safe, intelligent, and loving way. When I was four (an extremely early reader), I was addicted to fairy tales and would often check large books out of the library. I was exposed to the “dark” tales early. My mom and dad were always ready to explain anything I didn’t understand or that I was concerned about. They created an atmosphere of openness and love of writing in which anything could be questioned and discussed. My dad, a Hungarian-born immigrant, sometimes had his own take on the story, and his take was frequently even darker… which was scary and fun.

  3. Finally, I created a feminist version: Gretel says, “I refuse to let the witch eat my brother. That’s not OK. I’m going to fight back!” She shoves the witch in the oven and liberates her brother. Eventually, my daughter was able to move on.

    At last, a modernized retelling I like! Go Gretel!

  4. Nels Nelson says:

    As dangermom said, not all fairy tales are appropriate at every age, for every child. I tried Hansel and Gretel with my daughter when she was 3, but it was too scary for her. Now that she’s 5 she has no problem with it.

    With most of these stories there’s no definitive version, and I see no problem with parents picking whichever works for them and their children. I happen to think Rapunzel comes across as more realistically naive asking why her clothes are getting tighter (rather than just letting drop that the prince has been visiting her), and I think it’s magical how the woodcutter finds Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother intact inside the wolf’s belly, if a little rumpled, but I can understand how other parents might think these scenes inappropriate.

  5. Parents need to decide what is appropriate for their children. Some kids are easily scared. I must admit that I am reluctant to read some of the fairy tales to my grandsons. We often read books that teach lessons, but being shoved into an oven is a bit much. It’s not being lazy if parents want to approach real life lessons in more meaningful and informed ways.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    Kids reared on Disneyfied reality later become screwed up teens. And if they never grow up, Unitarians.

    It’s too bad Disney bought the rights to Winnie the Pooh.

    I like the fact that Hansel and Gretel were abandoned and left to die for economic reasons by their own parents. That’s pretty scary. Scarier than a cannibal witch.

    And what I find particularly interesting is that on the way back to their house, they cross a river. And it’s not a river they’ve ever crossed before. Geographically, it’s not possible.

    But Rumplestiltskin, the original version, is probably the most disturbing one of them all.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    I don’t think we understand fairy tales very well when we think of them as primarily children’s bedtime stories. There are some archetypal stories and themes that run through many–and are echoed throughout literature. The contrast between the loving child who wants little and the greedy child who wants mostly material things (Snow White Rose Red, but also King Lear). Frequent themes of good overcoming evil. I have heard various elaborations on the archetype of the orphan (and search for self) that we find throughout fairy stories–Cinderella. I forget who wrote Women Who Run with Wolves–but it caused me to see the crone/witch archetype differently–like Baba Yaga.

    I don’t know the Hansel and Gretel that others grew up with–but I always saw Gretel as the character of power. Poor Hansel was stuck in that cage. It was Gretel who hatched the plan to prolong his life and urged the witch into a position where she could be pushed into the oven.

    I still find The Snow Queen to be very powerful. It begins with a shattered magic mirror, whose shards spread throughout the world and infect people’s eyesight and, in severe cases their hearts, with an inability to perceive good. I forget the names of the boy and girl (again, the boy is held helpless prisoner while the girl overcomes dangers and challenges to rescue him). The icy snow queen cannot overcome the boy’s malady–her kisses can only render him dull, frozen and at a distance from his pain. Not at all a story to put babies to sleep–although an incredible allegory for anyone of an age to imagine meaning attached to the characters and events.

  8. wahoofive says:

    To expand on Margo/Mom’s first sentence, maybe the unease with “scary” stories is because bedtime is increasingly the only time parents read to their children. Maybe it’s easier to handle a story which stimulates your subconscious fears when it’s mid-afternoon.

  9. In so many fairy tales, a young man leaves his home to seek his fortune (which could be changed in the re-telling, for daughters). The young person develops competence and mastery (without a Harvard degree or perfect SATS!) and overcomes, often through kindness or cleverness. Modern parents hate the idea that their kids will cease to need them.

  10. Wait…in the version of Hansel and Gretel my mom used to tell me, Gretel got hired on as the witch’s maid, and ultimately wound up tricking the witch into freeing her brother from the cage, and then they pushed the witch into the oven.

    So my mom used a “feminist retelling” of the story? Or is the “typical” version one where the kids win via Gretel’s cleverness?

    I don’t remember ever having a problem with “scary” fairy tales – from a fairly young age I knew they were just that, tales – not something real that could really happen.

    I will say The Three Bears always bugged me a little, that Goldilocks could break and enter that way with absolutely no moral compunction against doing so…of course the bears chased her; they’re BEARS. They would have been within their rights to eat her, I think.

  11. deirdremundy says:

    I really dislike Jack and the Beanstalk— because in many versions Jack is rewarded for being a thief!

    I read it to my 3 year old the other day and asked “Was it OK for Jack to take the goose and the harp?”

    Her answer? “Yes, because the Giant wouldn’t share…”

    Wow… at 3, my daughter is already a Marxist! I think we’ll skip JAck for a while…..

  12. Bill Leonard says:

    In kindergarten, I was frightened by Hansel and Gretel, I suspect because of the fear that many children have of being abandoned or given away; anybody else ever hear how naughty children would be sold to the gypsies?

    Nevertheless, all the fairy tales were read to my kindergarten class. This was 1948, long before any thought of political correctness crept into the social discourse.

    To be honest, some of the nursery rhymes were more terrifying yet. I vividly remember shivering when the teacher or someone else would recite Little Suckathumb. (For those reared in this kinder, gentler era, Little Suckathumb can’t stop sucking his thumb, and the Long Redlegged Scissorman whips out his shears and cuts off the offending member.)


  13. Roald Dahl’s book, “Revolting Rhymes,” is a favorite with all my children.

    “Oh piglet, you must never trust Young ladies from the upper crust…”

  14. And the feminist part is because, what, Gretel said it out loud? Or was the witch a patriarchical white man in drag?

    Really, if Gretel said that out loud, and managed to push the witch in anyway, then the witch was way too stupid to live.

    In answer to Ricki’s question, the standard Hansel and Gretel has Gretel acting stupid to con the witch into climbing into the oven, and when the witch is in there, she slams the door. Gretel’s cleverness saves her brother.

  15. I get that parents might want to shelter their kids from various sorts of scary things. At the same time, though, these parents obviously still want their kids to engage with these “classic” stories. But the stories are classic in part *because* they are scary.

    And that part – wanting to expose the kid to “the story”, but not the *actual* story – is a psychological quirk I admit I don’t really get.

  16. I remember being very freaked out by these stories and didn’t offer the real versions to my kids until they were about 10, when they could really appreciate scary stuff.

    I think it’s just a matter of age appropriateness.

  17. I hate the thought of us losing old fairy tales. Stories being passed on throughout the ages is part of our lives, our heritage. It didn’t harm me to hear these stories when I was little and I don’t think it will hurt our children. As adults, we need to chose the appropriate age when they can hear these stories and understand that they are just fairy tales.


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