By Lenore Skenazy
Little Red Riding Hood went into the woods to take a basket of bread and jam to her ailing grandmother. On her way there she met a wolf, who asked where she was going and when Red Riding Hood told him, the wolf replied, “Oh my God, I haven’t visited my grandmother in, like, a month!” Guiltily he slunk off to gather some nuts for his vegan grandmother, who was delighted to see him, and asked him why he was still single.
On the way home the wolf and Red Riding Hood ran into each other again and agreed: Visiting grandma is something you should do.
And that, my friends, is how some people, somewhere, are introducing their children to the fabulous world of fairy tales.
A study of 2,000 parents commissioned by a British website called “musicMagpie” found that one quarter of moms and dads change parts of the story when they read them to kids.
Generally, this is because they think the original tale is too disturbing for tots to handle. And at the top of their “to alter” list is Little Red, because in the original version, the wolf runs ahead, gobbles granny up, and dons the lady’s clothing. Little Red Riding Hood comes by and marvels, “Why grandmother, what big arms you have!” and feet, and eyes, etc., etc., right down to the big teeth, which are, of course, the issue at hand.
Depending on which version you read, quick-thinking Little Red Riding Hood dives into the closet and stays there until a passing woodsman saves her or slower-thinking Little Red gets gobbled up, but then a woodsman slices the wolf open to liberate both the girl and her grandmother (both miraculously unchewed, despite said teeth). Or if you read the version I grew up with — “The Blue Fairy Book” by Charles Perrault — Little Red gets devoured and that’s the end of the story. And her.
What does it mean when parents find this too cruel a fate to expose their kids to? After all, this same study found that about a fourth of all parents abhor the Gingerbread Man for the same reason (being eaten alive) even though the Gingerbread Man is, you guessed it, gingerbread!
Three in 10 hate on Hansel and Gretel because the kids are left alone in the forest (Without cellphones!). And 25 percent feel the Ugly Duckling encourages body shaming.
Which, of course, it does — if you are a duck.
What is galling is not that parents ad lib. What’s galling is that they think fairy tales are not supposed to be disturbing.
Obviously, a tale where a child gets devoured was never meant to be sweet. It was meant to scare the crackers out of any kid who doesn’t do what mama says. (Little Red Riding Hood begins with her mom instructing her to go straight to grandma’s. Instead she not only talks to the wolf, she picks flowers and generally dawdles her way to disaster.)
Aside from basic “Listen to your parents” instruction, telling our kids scary stories is the bedtime version of letting them go outside — another classic childhood activity being curtailed for “safety’s sake.” Fairy tales, like life, are sometimes surprising, and sometimes a little frightening, but the more that kids encounter them, the braver they become.
Or think of climbing a tree. Kids go up a little higher each time as they acclimate to the challenge. Reading and rereading fairy tales, they acclimate to fear. Then they triumph over it.
Once upon a time, humans understood that. The original version of Little Red Riding Hood can be traced to about 1000 A.D. What does that say about us that only this latest generation of kids can’t handle it? Or rather, we think our kids can’t handle it?
Should every fairy tale start out with a boy and a girl going into the woods, accompanied by a background-checked nanny, wisely avoiding the candy house (Cavities! Sugar rush!), gathering some leaves for a class project, and hurrying home so they have time for homework and lacrosse before a dinner of braised quinoa? How didactic do we have to be?
I recently read about a children’s bible that tells kids, “And then Jesus went away.” To where? Paris? Acapulco? A cruise? Did he enjoy the trip?
If parents find an age-old story so traumatizing that they don’t want their kids to read it — fine. Tuck it away for a later date. But treating this generation as more fragile than any other is insulting and untrue. Kids are as fragile as we make them.
If generations have heard a story and turned around and told it to their own kids, it’s probably a tale that should live happily ever after.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.