Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
This ditty is so untrue. Most children have experienced teasing or bullying and felt the sharp sting of hurtful words. Helping children process this pain and develop resilience is supremely important for their mental, physical, and spiritual development.
What is resilience? Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, challenges, stress, failure, or trauma. Obstacles that might seem small to an adult can feel immense and all-consuming to a child. When children learn that they have what it takes to tackle difficult issues, they build confidence to confront and work through problems. Resilient kids are inquisitive, brave, and trust their instincts. They know their limits and they can step outside of their comfort zones. Such internalized self-confidence propels them to plan and reach both short and long-term goals. This skill is essential for success later in life.
“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” -C.S. Lewis
Some Christians believe fairy tales are hurtful to children and may tempt them away from their Christian faith. In fact, fairy tales provide a wonderful foundation upon which to build a Christian perspective. Consider Pinocchio, Chronicles of Narnia, or the Legends of King Arthur. J.R. Tolkien believed fairy tales to be essential for all humanity. Tolkien said stories are needed so we can see that fairy tales are fulfilled in Christianity. Both Scripture and fairy tales point to our human weakness and our need for help. We share stories not to scare our children but to demonstrate their great need for God.
Fairy tales generally contain a portrayal of good vs. evil. The plot often involves an impossible task achieved through virtue or self-sacrifice, sometimes with some help from a magical source. The characters are usually royalty, magical characters, or common everyday folk. A simple or underappreciated character is rewarded in the end.
There are four ways fairy tales teach children to be brave:
1) Fairy tales tell real-life problems in fantastical settings.
There is plenty of bad news in the world. Thanks to technology, our children are exposed to evil in our world with more ease than any previous generation. Every child will hear that bad things happen in the real world. Children can understand from a young age that magical dragons and witches are not real. When these characters are the villains in stories, children can process scary situations in a safe space. This can allow children to build up the courage to face real-life situations.
2) Fairy tales promote faith.
In pretty much every fairy tale, there is a young person or child in a desperate situation. The arc of the story often follows a path of magic that has both evil and marvelous components. There is traditionally a happily ever after ending that encourages faith and bravery in every listener.
3) Fairy tales teach the value of independence.
Most fairy tales involve a young character venturing into the world on his own. There are dark woods, strange sounds, and evil witches. Even so, most of these young adventurers remain hopeful about life. They find comfort in woodland creatures or a sibling and find that, despite their fears, they will be rescued or will use their sensibility to escape their situation.
4) Fairy tales model bravery.
Fairy tales are filled with characters who are both independent and brave. At some point in the story, characters gather the courage to outsmart the wolf, the witch, or stand up to their evil step-mother. A well-written tale will allow children to imagine themselves in the role. (We adults do the same, admit it.)
There will come a time when every child will face something that intimidates or frightens them, and parents will not always be there to help them through it. Fairy tales help children face fearful situations with courage and bravery.
G.K. Chesterton rightly said, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be slayed.”
In my next post, we’ll continue our discussion on building resilience through story-telling to engage real-life issues of oppression, hunger, dysfunctional families, hardship, pain, and loss. These stories foster dialogue about trusting in God’s promises to slay the monsters of this world and to know that we are never alone.
Until next week!
Dr. Marie Yvette Hernández-Seltz is the director of Candescent Counseling, Consulting & Coaching. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and an MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She has spent the past 15 years studying self-esteem, self-confidence, responsibility, and the effects of environment and culture on the individual.