sweet child of mine,
i know you worry but look around
twilight shadows have fallen tucking in the earth
and the night is busy too as she wraps stars
into the hair of the goddess moon who is preparing
to dance in lushness with princes from distant lands
so lay your head in peace, sweet child of mine
close your eyes as the earth is closing hers too
take refuge in the quiet corner of your heart
and know that tomorrow the laugh of
the sun’s cheerful head will wake us up again
and i will take your hand
and we’ll figure it out then
by Lubomira Kourteva
Welcome to 2020 when children’s insatiable longing for touch, connection and affection is restricted. Recently a woman shared how her son was beginning to shy away from contact and didn’t even want to play anymore; he had gotten used to “stay away from the others” and had began to unfortunately, close down. He’d cry, feeling rejected. Here is the thing – in a child’s gentle world, there are two realities, “they love me” or “they love me not”. This later becomes, “I am not loved, I am not wanted, I am not enough, I am not lovable”. It is unrealistic for adults to imagine that a child would understand why a parent might be stressed from work or has their own problems or that there is a virus out there; if someone doesn’t show them affection or want to play with them – the child thinks, “they don’t love me”.
Every child responds differently to the current pandemic and change of routines; some may suppress their feelings and seem cheerful (maybe they don’t want to upset the parent), others may be outright angry or sad. But the fact remains, that they are all (just like us) experiencing the instability and this affects them emotionally, in ways they are incapable of understanding yet and may not know how to deal with it. All of this makes me think of the importance of fairytales because it is precisely fairytales that speak a child’s language; they nurture their imagination and relieve their fears, they offer them coping mechanisms and a comforting hand during their intense moments, and allow us as a family to cultivate closeness amidst distancing. So, let’s delve into the magical world of a child’s mind and the paths they walk with their beloved fairy friends, so that we understand more deeply why tales are even more needed today.
“Little Thumb” by Charles Perrault, illustrated by Gianni Benvenuti
Tales nurture children’s imagination, while relieving their worries and fears.
It is no easy task being a child. Real childhood, as opposed to our fantasies because of forgetfulness, is full of adversaries, worries, unknowns and some intense moments, for many even traumatic. In every step of the way, they are faced with the harsh realities of their larger than life dreams as they come crashing down. And they face the mysterious “No” which would remain mysterious for reasons they are incapable of understanding yet. No matter how much we shield or protect our children as parents, childhood always has its own intensities.
Here is where the wisdom of folk and fairy tales comes, which we too have forgotten. Hope is often the through-line of the narrative but the teaching isn’t that it’s easy and gets us out of trouble like fairy dust or Aladdin’s genie from the lamp.
Hope is a struggle.
Hope is dangerous.
Hope is challenging.
And hope is absolutely needed. Because now more than ever we need to learn to meet the world with hope.
“Tales from Moominvalley” by Tove Jansson
Now, a lot of tales are quite dark and even frightening, so many people wonder, should we be telling them to our kids then?
I think it’s important that we do and perhaps even more important today than ever before should these tales be told and repeated again and again.
The violence or darkness within them is always contained within a reasonable and satisfying structure; both good and bad are separated, and there are no grey areas. To a child, this is actually important from a psychological perspective because unlike adults, a child until the age of seven only has its emotional body forming, not yet its mental body. The appearance of villains and evil people actually allows the child to freely, and safely, project its own violent feelings onto these separated character beings. Since children are unable to express their anger, sadness and even hatred directly towards adults (because they depend on them), the children can therefore displace these natural emotions and aggressions as personified by the tales’ villains.
Simultaneously, since their emotions are expressed in a satisfying manner, children can then identify with the good characters. They have now won against the dragon and the witch, escaped through the thorns of the scary forest, and can rescue the princess or acquire their justice after their hardships. Children can also identify with the weak and tiny, who are able to overcome all odds and still triumph, like the little mouse, rabbit or the poor shoemaker. Because like I already talked about; the go-through narrative of all tales is hope. And it is hope and fear, that ultimately guide our decisions in life. It’s a choice we make each day, and meeting the world with hope is of much importance. Tales remind children of that, and it’s a wisdom deeply ingrained within their psyche. Tales permit both the expression of our natural humanly aggressions while preserving the essentials of life: hope.
“The Fairies” by Charles Perrault, illustrated by Gianni Benvenuti
“Diamonds and gold coins may
Work some wonders in their way;
But a gentle word is worth
More than all the gems on earth.”
We have to remember that children are fragile, helpless and completely dependent. And in these ancient tales, they find a comforting hand, holding them through it all. Especially in the times when their worlds are confused and they don’t know how to make sense of it, and don’t even know the questions to ask us, it is tales that speak to them in languages, that while we as adults may have forgotten, they always understand and feel. Children need these tales, because they relate to the characters who, just like them, feel all the spectrum of emotions and as such, they feel more comfortable feeling their emotions as well.
“The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac
In an age where everything is increasingly dehumanized, as people are turned into non-people soon to be robots, just faces on a screen, swipeable and disposable, and where even culture and art seem to diminish our lives as opposed to enrich it, it is precisely tales that offer a much needed link to the values of humanity and humaneness.
When I was a little girl, every time I’d listen to a tale, I’d have to use my imagination. I’d have to first believe it, to then see it. This is one of the greatest gifts of our psyche’s development: our imagination, rather than purely visual instant gratification/stimulation that we get from TV or media. In fact, it is imagination that makes the best and most innovative change-makers and problem-solvers in the world. We need to have the humility to accept reality for what it is, and the audacity to imagine it otherwise. It is imagination that makes us creative, and makes us more fulfilled human beings, emotionally, mentality and spiritually. We shouldn’t rob children of their imagination, because this ultimately affects their wellbeing.
“Among Gnomes and Trolls” illustrated by John Bauer
Children’s tales also offer the perspective, or rather alternative, that there are some other magical lands into which we can delve, outside of the malls or corporations. They inspire the immesurable qualities of imagination, questioning, instinct and even rebellion. And as far as I am concerned, these are good qualities leading to independent, forward thinking.
Fairytales are the first teachers to children, as were the first teachers of all humanity, secretly living on continuously in the story. For these are not just stories heard, but stories we went into; we lived in them and the characters, we struggled with them, we sharpened our instincts in the woods and learned perseverance through hardships and failures. Our ever after, had to be earned, because not everyone got to it.
“The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Christian Birmingham
Most fairytales aren’t about heroes with special powers. They are about humble, ordinary people or tiny animal creatures, who are not even the most beautiful, talented, bravest or strongest. And even when they are, these qualities are often hidden under ash or donkeyskins, because they are unnoticed, unseen, unheard and unappreciated by those around them. Any gifts that they are given, and often over-dued, are because of their virtues such as kindness, and devoted work behind the scenes. And yet even the beautiful and wealthy ones, like the princes and princesses also go through their own hardships and hurdles; and we learn that we all share things in common and can walk together hand in hand through life. The characters in tales get cheated, beaten, bullied, robbed, but they learn that they are stronger than they thought and that their greatest superpower is the one found in the purity of their hearts.
And we, as them, learn to cope with life, also and some of us even remember the magical power of our hearts. In fact, there has been numerous research showing that children who grew up with fairytales had better coping strategies during hard times.
Not all of the fairytale characters get their happy ends, especially if we’ve read Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen or many of the Swedish tales. And yet we remember that it is our own feet and hands that shape and weave our lives, and we can take another step, and then another, and maybe things will work out. Because you just never know who might show up in the story, on the next line, or page; maybe kindness from a hand of a stranger or a firepit in the cold woods.
The lessons from tales are subtle but will stay in the subconscious mind, through adulthood; because these are the moral and humane structures and foundations of the life that we build for ourselves.
And we learn to persevere.
And we learn to trust.
And some learn to love.
It is easy for us as adults to rest in cynicism and fear, and with all this doubt and uncertainty, we are all going through our hardships. But we must shift our eyes towards the little ones as well, because they are also going through intensities feeling the unknown world around them shake in fearful changes; and they need closeness amidst distancing, and they need us to allow them to go through their emotions freely, so that they don’t suppress them. If they need to cry, let them cry. If they feel angry, let them get angry. Let them experience their feelings completely and entirely, free from guilt and shame.
Illustration by Julia Jeffrey
They need to know that regardless of how they feel, we are there holding a safe space for them, with unconditional love and acceptance.
While we can’t protect them from the world and all its dangers, we can at least hold them through it. This means a commitment that we pay attention to them, we support and cherish them, we help where we can, and we don’t hide away when things are uncomfortable because we know that the through-line narrative of life is hope. And we’ll tell them all about that, and how to walk through the leafy paths, as we lay their tiny heads and frail bodies upon our lap tonight, when we read them a tale of love.
In love + peace,
*This is an excerpt from my essay on The History and Importance of Fairytales + Preserving Generations.
Cover Illustration by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
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