Notes on Fairytales: The Frosting, Not the Cake

Fairytales play an important part in child development by giving imaginary solutions to deep fears. For example, Jack and the Bean Stalk is about a little boy conquering a big person. Jack gains power over the "giants" (adults) who control his life. He deals with his smallness and anger through a magical fantasy in which he triumphs.

But solutions that work in early childhood often fall short when we mature. In fact, fairytale thinking, if not replaced by more realistic problem-solving, can remain with us as adults, giving us unrealistic expectations that leave us ill-equipped to deal with life's problems. 

There are too many examples like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, where the heroine lives "happily ever after" only after being saved by a man. What a setup, considering the duration and difficulty of marriage in our times.

Fairytales are like the frosting on a cake - sugary solutions that cover the unconscious impulses children try to control but have not yet dealt with. The cake underneath is the true basis for realistic problem-solving. By helping children learn to develop realistic solutions to replace the myths and fantasies, parents help children "mix" the cake, which is then "baked" in the heat of real-life problems and experiences. 

Mixing the cake

By the time children are 4 or 5, parents need to help them move from the emotional, magical problem-solving of fairytale thinking toward thinking about what they feel in actual situations. 
For example, a parent might ask, "How do you think you should handle the problem?" and help the child develop a solution. As a write this, I hear a neighbor calmly explaining to her child that "running by the pool can hurt you." She sounds patient and wise on this sunny afternoon.

Unfortunately, many children do not get enough direction, and emotions remain disconnected from thinking. This leads to angry outbursts or feelings of helplessness that continue into adulthood. It is helpful to teach children real-life, concrete examples of solving problems. With my son, I shared times when I felt left out and helpless, then chose to take action by forming my own groups. Children need lots of examples of managing emotions and impulses in healthy ways. 

Leaving " perfect" behind

In fairytales, there are very clear "good guys" and "bad guys." This allows a child to do what is known as "splitting," for example, seeing one parent as "all good" and the other as "all bad." The problem develops when splitting continues into adulthood. Thus, the handsome prince (husband) who is "all good" becomes the ogre who is "all bad." We see this often in our practice with all kinds of relationships.

As we discuss in our book, The New Marriage, children think in magical terms, in all-or-nothing solutions, and believe that they are the center of the universe. They are naturally narcissistic and feel as though they have to fight great forces for their place in the world.

As a marriage and family therapist, I have seen disaster after disaster based upon the power of this early learning. Children who learn that this is the normal way to be grow to believe as adults that there is something wrong with them because they are not living happily ever after. 

Hopefully, as adults we become more humble and realistic about our place in the world and learn to make a difference by loving as much as we can from wherever we are. Translated in psychological terms, we are no longer looking for our perfect prince or princess, but are willing to settle for a real-life human being with flaws. We are also capable of feeling valuable even if we are not the most beautiful princess who ever lived.

In The New Marriage, we try to offer more sophisticated answers to these transformations. We suggest that people learn that we are all inner-connected and that they learn respect and compassion. This does not mean that they allow themselves to be victimized or abused. The mature person is able to face the difficult forces around them with creativity, flexibility, compassion and humor. 

The frosting of magical wishes is important for a child's development. However, true transformation requires a substantial cake that can be baked in the oven by real-life experience in order to live our dreams.