Don’t go into the woods. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t eat things if you don’t know where they came from. Don’t touch sharp objects. Don’t get lost. Don’t leave the path. Don’t trust people you don’t know. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to read fairy tales as a litany of the world’s dangers and how to avoid them. And there’s some of that, for sure. Many of these stories were told by mothers to their children as a way to instill key lessons and universal truths. And, whether we like it or not, one truth that can’t be avoided is: it’s dangerous out there. But this reading of what fairy tales are is, in my opinion, too narrow. Yes, they offer warnings, but it’s more than that. Fairy tales are about growing up. And letting go.
If you’ve read my book (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) you’ve already heard me talk about fairy tales as instruction manuals for growing up. The story of Snow White is a metaphor for puberty, ‘Cinderella’ teaches us about true love, ‘The Little Mermaid’ illuminates the importance of the soul. But, even more than that, fairy tales teach children that they cannot stay children forever. In order to be successful, competent, fulfilled adults, they must break away from their family of origin, and forge their own path.
In fairy tales, this idea is solidified by the inclusion of obstacles designed to hold our heroes (and heroines) back. Their parental figures aren’t willing to let them go without a fight. Snow White’s Evil Queen doesn’t want her to grow up — because, in growing up, Snow White will surpass her in beauty. Rapunzel’s wicked witch keeps her locked in a tower so she may never meet a prince and start a family of her own. Even Sleeping Beauty’s family’s well-meaning decision to burn all the spinning wheels so she can’t prick her finger holds her back from entering the sleep which, in fairy tales, signals a girl’s change to womanhood. In setting up these obstacles, fairy tales show us the importance of breaking through them and claiming our adulthoods, no matter the cost.
This is a fairly obvious lesson for children to learn. It’s true that, for many, it’s a hard lesson to learn. But the idea that children must grow up and that they must break from from their parents and follow their life’s calling ought to be a no-brainer. But underneath this clear message is another, subtler, one. A lesson for parents. One that may be even harder to learn.
I frequently joke that I have no idea why we bring our kid to the playground, every single thing there could result in death or bodily harm. Why am I letting my most precious boy swing from a bar high up in the air, or slide down a slide backwards? What earthly sense does it make to stand down below as he climbs ever higher up a climber on ladders he could break his leg (or worse) if he fell from? Why am I not — as I did when he was small — standing right there behind him, holding his two hands as he goes? It feels like I should be! The sickly thud of my mother’s heart each time his foot slips screams out for me to grab him, pull him off of there, and hold him tight. Why don’t I? I want to.
I don’t because a parent’s job is to let go. In fact, parenting is all about letting go. For mothers, it begins immediately. This tiny being that we sheltered, tucked safely under our ribs — flesh of our flesh, sustained by our very blood — must be born. The cord must be cut. He must breathe on his own. He must sleep, and cry, and move independently from us. He must be something other than us. His own person.
And that’s only the beginning. We must allow our children to fall as they learn to crawl, to climb, to walk, to run. We must allow them to negotiate disagreements with friends and speak up for themselves as they grow. We must allow them to go for that first terrifying walk down the street alone and, later, that first even more terrifying drive around the block. We must allow them to date, to love, to feel heartbreak, and pain. And one day — oh God one day — we must allow them to leave us. Well and truly leave us and follow their dreams.
Fairy tales — and the Disney movies based on them — show us what happens if we don’t let go. Think of Rapunzel, locked in her tower, knowing nothing of the world. Or Snow White’s stepmother, jealously ordering Snow White’s murder — lest she surpass her in beauty. Or even Cinderella’s stepmother, refusing to allow her out of the house so she won’t reveal the stepsisters’ ugliness with her own beauty.
Of course, the parental figures in these examples aren’t holding their children close out of love. They’re doing it out of jealousy, pettiness, and revenge. But the message is the same. If you can’t shoulder the parental burden of letting your children go, you become the wicked witch.
Growing up and letting go. Fairy tales teach us that both are necessary for a full and complete life. The child must grow up. The parents must let go. Anything less is “wicked.”
Want more? Check out the latest episode of Princess State of Mind where I delve further into this idea.