Think of the word ‘fairy tale’ and what comes to mind? Most likely its exciting images of heroes going on an adventure to defeat evil, slaying dragons and saving princesses along the way. Even some modern children's stories, like the Harry Potter books, feature dragons and the fight between good and evil.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why we tell children these stories over and over again?
Stories are a part of who we are
For as long as humans lived, people have told each other stories. Some of those stories had an obvious purpose: cave paintings may have indicated where food could be found, while parables like those Jesus told during his ministry convey clear lessons.
Others, like fairy tales, have less obvious meanings, yet have been passed on from one generation to the next for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Researchers from Durham and Lisbon universities studies the origins of some of our most well-known fairy tales and came to a surprising conclusion about how old they really are. The researchers found that Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin are about 4,000 years old, while Jack and the Beanstalk had its roots in a group of stories that dated back to more than 5,000 years ago.
Another story, The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith who sells his soul to the devil in return for magical abilities, was even older, dated by the researchers to the Bronze Age, some 6,000 years ago or more. Variations on the tale are still found from India to Scandinavia and beyond.
Children are born with a need to hear stories
One of the reasons these fairy tales have lasted so long may be that responsiveness to stories during childhood seems to be hard-wired into our DNA. Along with a requirement for good nutrition and exercise, children are born with a need to hear stories. Prof Yvonne Kelly of University College London told the BBC: "Children who listen to stories show better results in measures such as literacy tests and SATs — but also in terms of social and emotional development."
Young children can pick up important skills, both physical and emotional, through listening to stories which help to prepare them mentally. That’s why when we have a child who is potty training, we might read board books with them about using the potty to pee-pee. Or if parents are expecting a younger sibling, an older child might be prepared for the life-change with a story about becoming a big brother or sister.
As children develop, they pick up their values from stories they hear in much the same way. Give them stories about brave adventurers who slay dragons, and they will be better emotionally equipped to face the challenges of adult life.
Hero stories teach children how to succeed in life
Children learn primarily by following the example of people in their lives. Mostly, that means by copying you, their parent, but it can also mean teachers, older children they admire, public figures, and even characters in books.
The lessons children learn from their role models include
- How to treat other people
- How to express their emotions
- How to deal with difficult or stressful situations
- How to solve problems
- Their work ethic
- How to look after themselves, mentally and physically
- How to deal with mistakes, their own and others’
- The values that they’ll take with them through life
Good role models will impart good models of behavior in all of these areas, while bad role models will lead them astray.
That’s why it’s so important for children to be surrounded by positive role models, not only at home, but in the books they read and films they watch. Hero stories provide positive role models.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes
While fairy tales of knights battling dragons speak to us all through metaphor, teaching us that the best way to face our fears is with courage and determination, children also need heroes who they can relate more closely to. They need the sorts of stories that provide them with moments in which they think to themselves: “This situation is exactly like that time my hero faced a similar problem. Now I know what I need to do.”
Real life heroes, people who have trodden difficult paths before us and have succeeded, are therefore essential characters in children’s lives. Whether it’s sports heroes, courageous politicians, artists and authors, or even Hollywood stars, there are plenty of people out there who have led virtuous lives which can be emulated.
With the Heroes of Liberty children's book series, we aim to give children exactly those types of role models, making our children’s books a great place to start when providing your children with heroes. But don’t stop there. Classic children’s books are also full of heroes of all stripes, whose stories have stood the test of time. Why not pick up a book to read with your child today, and dive right in?