Life Lessons in Stories for Children

I love fairy tales, folk tales and modern children’s picture books.

There is much to love about and learn from them: the characters, the setting, the quaintness, the delightful stories and the beautiful art that accompanies them.

What I love most about classic fairy tales (Pinnochio, Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs), folk tales (Aesop’s Fables, the Sang Kancil stories, Orang Asli parables) and picture books (modern ones like Chris Riddle, Oliver Jeffers, Anthony Brown and Tomie de Paola) are the life lessons they impart if we are alive to them.

My delight with them is how they contain profound lessons about life and living told in such a light and charming way even a child can appreciate it. Few words, simple art and colours, and yet profound and moving. A few more words, more refined art and colours, no less delightful and entertaining. They remind me of the wonder of life.

Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourites. I like best the anterior part of the story because it contains an important lesson about managing risk and raising children.

The version I grew up with was Disney’s version. I watched the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty countless times when I was young. I saw all their hand-animated movies many times over. When I was older I read the Grimm Brothers/Charles Perrault’s version, which Disney followed.

Charles Perrault was an important French author of the 17th century. He paved the way for the emergence and establishment of the fairy tale genre. The Grimm Brothers’ version is a record of the oral version of Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty.

In Disney’s version, a wicked fairy tells a king and queen that their princess will prick her finger on a sewing spindle on her sixteenth birthday. When she does, she will fall into a deep sleep she will not wake up from. To avoid the prophecy, they destroy every spindle in the kingdom.

However, there is one in their castle tower. On her sixteenth birthday, while wandering the castle, the princess discovers the spindle. Curious, she touches it, pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep, fulfilling the wicked fairy’s prophecy. The prince later frees her with a kiss, but that part is less interesting.

What that part of the story tells me is a risk like a spindle, it must not be ignored. We must not wilfully blind ourselves to it. Or we do so at our peril. Instead, we need to acknowledge it, account for it and educate ourselves about it to better work out how to reduce it.

Back to Sleeping Beauty.

If the princess’ parents educated her about a spindle, she would have been better equipped to avoid as many spindles as she came across. She knew what it looked like and why she should avoid it. She could come across a hundred and avoid them all. Of course, then we won’t have Sleeping Beauty anymore.

But because her parents chose to banish spindles completely, the princess was completely ignorant about what a spindle was and pricked her finger on the first one she came across. And in their own castle at that. I don’t remember whether the wicked fairy put it there or it was left there. That’s an interesting facet to explore. But I digress.

The point is leaving our children ignorant about risks does not protect them from them. It leaves them vulnerable to risks. The more ignorant our children are about risks, the less able they are to deal and manage them, and the less emotionally and psychologically prepared when those risks materialize.

And since the story was about a princess and her parents, I could not help but reflect on it from a parental perspective, since I have children of my own.

The lesson I drew was that we cannot eradicate risk for our children. We can only expose and educate them to learn how to manage and deal with it. We can never make the world safe enough for them and it never will be. We cannot change the world to suit them.

Our children are going to grow up and go out into the big, indifferent, unforgiving and demanding world to earn a living one day. That is a different ball game altogether from everything that came before. Secondary school, college and university, do not come remotely close to what the working world is like.

We can only raise them to be resilient and adaptable so they can deal with whatever they have coming to them in the future, which we may not be around for. We can only help them help themselves. We cannot eat, piss or absorb information for them. Only they can do that themselves. Similarly with whatever it is they have to do and are responsible for. We can buy the laptop, but not write the report.

Back to Sleeping Beauty.

There is so much more to be read and felt from the words and pictures of stories for children. Some have no words yet say so much. Some are so well drawn or painted, they arrest my attention and hold it hostage. Many of the award-winning, critically acclaimed or popular ones tend to be sophisticatedly simple but possess the power to stir the soul and move the mind.

If there’s one thing I have learned reading stories for children is that adults need them too, if not more. Stories for children are lessons for adulthood.

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