Why fairy tales appeal to children

It’s a weird company. For centuries, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but also ogres, monsters and witches have invited themselves into the house before going to bed, at the time of the “evening story”. Today as yesterday, at the time of the pills as in the age of the evenings by the fire. Almost.

In the media library of Issy-les-Moulineaux (Hauts-de-Seine), one thing has become clear in recent years: in competition with more contemporary albums, fairy tales are no longer among the most sought-after works, even if they find their audience, around 7 years old , attracted by very beautiful or very funny, richly illustrated reprints.

In the aisles, two young readers testify to this contrasting bond. Rose and Sarah are sixth graders and 11 years old. The first read a lot of stories when she was little The three little pigs whose morals she loved: “We must not make fun of those who take the time to do things well”, summarizes them. The second, on the other hand, she discovered from Disney at college, where the French teacher let her study Perrault. His parents, like many others of their generation, never read them to him because they found these readings too intense.

key to understanding life

According to the clinical psychologist Geneviève Djénati, it is still necessary to read fairy tales to children because these stories of princesses, but also of ogres that devour children and wolves with long teeth appeal to the youngest. Reading a story would always mean growing a little. To embark on a journey of discovery on the shoulders of a hero, finding through him the keys to understanding life that opens far before one, would set standards that would be difficult to replace.

→ MAINTENANCE. “The children with the greatest imagination are the ones who have been told many stories”

The recipe is immutable: “The frame is always a little bit the same, the psychologist describes: A hero, despite his impotence, his precocity, must face a challenge, will succeed and be led to great deeds. The child sees in this an image of his own challenge, which is to grow up. » The stories then present tales of intense feelings – love, hate, or fear – conveyed by cartoonish characters – the ogre, the prince, etc. – that reflect the emotions of young children, “at an age when they are moved by very strong impulses, outbursts of love, hate, fear”.

Their symbolism is adapted to the psychology of the youngest. “The wonderful stories offer a universe to read because the opposites are clearly contrasted there : the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor, the good and the bad. But for the little child, the world is organized around pairs of opposites that involve no intermediary. continues Bernadette Bricout, Emeritus Professor of Oral Literature at the Paris-Cité University.

Besides, the child “Animist to the Age of Reason”, she rises. “For him the stone lives since it rolls down the slope, and the torrent since it tumbles down the mountain. But it is precisely this way of perceiving things around us that the stories offer: animals, plants, household items are independent actors. »

Through their symbolic language, these stories convey life’s messages, continues Florence Dutruc-Rosset, Editor-in-Chief of beautiful stories and from My first beautiful stories (Bayard, editor of the cross) and author. They give a key to understanding the world and a guide to use: “By addressing all issues, including the most difficult ones like death, the story shows how to face difficulties and triumph over them while the hero endures his ordeals. »

An educational function

For this reason, since the beginning of time, the real mission of these stories has been to confront difficult subjects, emphasizes Bernadette Bricout. “The only stories in our oral tradition meant for children end badly, she rises. These are the cautionary tales. A ban is formulated, which the hero breaks and thus calls for punishment. These stories have an educational function, to warn of potential dangers, but participate in what is known as the “pedagogy of fear”. The bogeyman and the bogeyman are very likely to reappear in nightmares. »

If understandable, the temptation of some parents to close them before the last page to spare the child would be counterproductive because it deprives the child of a “happy ending” whose function is to reassure. “That would be like saying to the child: We don’t want to hear about the discomfort, the painful emotions, so you keep them to yourself. In fact, dragons and monsters are outlets. The child can project the little anger they feel or their sadness onto it. It would be a shame to deny his experience.” this is how Florence Dutruc-Rosset sees it.

New princesses have appeared

Another misconception relates to gender stereotypes. Voices were raised asking to change the ending of snow white, since the poisoned princess would not have been able to consent to the prince’s kiss. Without going that far, many parents believe that the role models of princesses, who are necessarily passive, and princes, who are necessarily brave, come from another era. Authors have therefore rewritten or diverted traditional fairy tales. New princesses have appeared, more voluntary or funnier.

→ CHRONICLE. Please don’t change the ending of “Snow White”!

“It’s an interesting approach to helping children get out of conditioning that has no place,” believes Florence Dutruc-Rosset and at the same time calls for no projection of adult interpretations onto children’s perceptions. « The prince and princess embody the two poles between which our psyche oscillates, regardless of whether we are a girl or a boy: expectation and action. Her marriage, her kiss also symbolizes a form of inner appeasement that empowers the reader, who recognizes himself in both, to be perfect. » The stories have not yet spoken their last word.



psychoanalysis of fairy tales, by Bruno Bettelheim. This classic, published in 1976 and still available from Pocket Editions, analyzes the symbolism of fairy tales and their gallery of characters.

Bernadette Bricout has published numerous books including: The key to fairy tales Illustrations Olivier Besson (Seuil). The memory of the house. Words from home and stories from home (Albin Michel). La Friquassée crotestyllonnée: Rhymes and games of children of yesteryear (Silene)

To starve by Anne-Marie Garat (Actes Sud): a scholarly and fascinating reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood.

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