Friday, July 18, 2014

Richard Dawkins on Fairy Tales

I had almost missed this post over on Surlalune, so make sure you read it if you haven't already: the fairy tale community responded to Richard Dawkins' statement that fairy tales could be detrimental to children. Hop on over to the post to read more about what he actually said (and his later amendment), and the fairy tale defenders discussing their worth-all very interesting stuff. I've partly addressed the possible benefit of fairy tales/fantasy before, even from an intellectual perspective, in my post on what Einstein may have meant when he (supposedly) 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."

I just find it interesting that Dawkins assumed that children who read fairy tales automatically believe in them. I never believed fairy tales were true, what's more is in all my interactions with children I feel like I've never had to have a discussion with them about what's possible and impossible-they get that a pumpkin turning into a coach and fairies granting wishes is magic. I do think that, possibly, the difference between most children and most adults interacting with fairy tales is that children tend to want the fairy tales/magic to be true, but they can also be pretty shrewd/skeptical. We shouldn't underestimate children and their potential.

Furthermore, to equate fairy tales with Santa and with God is just illogical. Santa is a cultural myth-many parents go to great lengths to convince their kids that Santa is real, and when we throw in movies and mall Santas it's a completely different story than we have with fairy tales-except in rare cases no one is actively trying to provide their kids "proof" that Cinderella was at the ball or Snow White bit the apple.

And God is a whole other matter. You can find very intelligent scientists who believe in God or the possibility of God, bu you won't find any who believe in Santa Claus.

Plus, Dawkins seems to assume that anyone unveiling the "truth" about childhood beliefs will be damaged by that. I personally think that, when I read tales of magic and wonder, it often helps me appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation. I also talked a little about this in my post on Mermaid hoaxes.

Anyway, I'm curious as to how you all reacted with fairy tales when you were little. Did you/anyone in your acquaintance believe in fairies? Was there a moment of discovering the "truth" that affected you in any way?


  1. "I do think that, possibly, the difference between most children and most adults interacting with fairy tales is that children tend to want the fairy tales/magic to be true, but they can also be pretty shrewd/skeptical."

    Yes, I definitely agree with this. Children are not as guillible as we think.

    As a child, I was definitely a huge believer in fairies and magic. I remember receiving a book about fairies one birthday and I tried all of the techniques on how to "catch" one. When it finally caught up with me about how they weren't real, I wasn't that disappointed. Though I was a bit annoyed at the fact that the children's market was saturated with the "believe or die" mentality...overexaggerating, but you see the concept of believing to save the day in so many stories!

    I touched on this in the Disneyworld post, but I also questioned what constituted "real" magic, such as whether the person I was talking to was actually the real Ariel or Mickey Mouse. I think that in the end, it helped me to learn a bit about how certain things could not be true based on what was present.

    I think that, for me, fairytales helped me learn how to process something's validity while also that some things are beyond our understanding. If they ever "corrupted" me it is only because I love playing with the concepts and ideas with them--not because they are making me believe in things that aren't real.

    1. Thank you for your insights!! So fascinating.

      I don't know that I've seen as much, in my own childhood experience, pushing children to believe in fairies specifically, but you're so right that many children's stories to push that "good people=open/believers, bad people=close minded and also always happen to be grumpy." We definitely see this in lots of Christmas/Santa movies although it happens with fairies too.

      I also think that children are naturally suspicious of whatever is told them on such subjects-one young girl I know has been told her whole life that Santa Claus is NOT real by her parents, but was very affected by the movie "Polar Express" and went through a phase where she sort of believed in Santa, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. I think there's something in all of us that wants to uncover a "secret truth," different than what our parents have told us-it almost doesn't matter what our parents tell us (in terms of these situations). Probably the reason so many kids (and adults!) want to discover that fairies/mermaids/etc. are actually true is simply because everyone else tells them it's not true and we're not content to just accept whatever we're told at face value, which is actually a good sign of intelligence...

  2. I agree that it's interesting how Dawkins assumed children automatically believe fairy tales. You're right - children, at least in my experience, do seem to know what's possible and what's not, and exposing them to fairy tales helps them to gain the ability to differentiate. As a child, I loved fairy tales and magic, and I knew they weren't real but they provided me with an escape, and with the hope that perhaps when I grew up they might come true, or my life might be 'magical.' In this way, I believe that fairy tales give children their innocence and optimism, and that's not a bad thing. Reality is harsh, and anything we can have to hold on to & help us survive it, real or not, is a blessing.

    1. Amen! Fairy tales and fantasy can ultimately help provide kids with a fascination with the unknown, which really is what science is all about anyway! And I absolutely agree that optimism and innocence are hardly bad-most adults could use a lot more of both!

  3. I believe that Fairy Tales stimulate the miind of children to explore the possiblities of everything, and hay there fun to read.

    1. I completely agree, on both that fairy tales stimulate creativity, and that they're fun to read!