Most of us think of Disneyland when we imagine the fairytales of our youth. It is an imaginary world filled with beautiful princesses who always overcome challenges and find true love with a handsome prince. The villains are scary but easily overcome by goodness and justice. The tales come from a long tradition of folklore and were most notably made popular by the Brothers Grimm. What few of us know is that a French lawyer and sometime author who worked in the court of Louis XIV first wrote about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood more than two hundred years before the stories that we know today were penned. That man was Charles Perrault and he is featured in today’s Google drawing. This is his three hundred eighty eighth birthday.
Perrault’s tales were less enchanting and more instructive than the stories as we know them today. His intent was to provide children lessons in the pitfalls of living. He wrote in a dark and frightening tone, emphasizing the potential evil in the world rather than the light heartedness of romance. His tale of Little Red Riding Hood served as a warning to young girls about the potential of trouble when traveling alone. The wolf in his tale was a charmer, capable of disarming an innocent young lady. Only when it was too late would she realize his evil intentions. Perrault’s descriptions of the wolf devouring one of his victims was purposely terrifying. He wanted his readers to understand that naively engaging with a predator most often resulted in disastrous consequences.
Perrault was perhaps truer to the original intent of the folktales from whence the popular children’s stories evolved. People used the stories to instruct the young rather than to entertain them. They emphasized the dangers that lie in the hearts of certain individuals. There were sinister villains lurking around every corner and it was up to young people to be careful. The original story of Sleeping Beauty, for example, was more about a lovely woman who became a kind of sex slave than about a curse placed on a baby by a petulant fairy. The tales of old were so frightening that it is difficult to imagine any adult whispering them to a child and yet they had a very important purpose, to warn the young to be very wary.
We often imagine the past as being an idyllic place in which children were always safe and happy. On the other hand we worry that today children must deal with so many more difficulties than ever before. The earliest fairy tales and folklore tell us that many of the problems that we face today have been a part of our history for centuries. The sad fact is that we have had killers since Cain, evil doers for all time. In each generation as parents we attempt to prepare our children for the realities of life. We have learned over time that we need not traumatize them to help them to understand the point. Still we see innocent little boys like Adam being kidnapped from an aisle full of toys at a Sears store and we know that we must watch over our children and warn them not to talk to strangers. There is perhaps nothing more infuriating than realizing that a tiny tot has somehow been harmed by evil. The question becomes how and when to teach our children about the realities of mankind and it is never easy.
I recall my mother iterating instructions over and over again regarding appropriate interactions. I thought her to be quite silly and perhaps more fearful than she should have been. I wasn’t supposed to sit next to a man in a movie theater. I was never to open the door to a stranger. Under no circumstances was I to get into a car with someone that I did not know. The list went on and on. In my naivety I rarely listened as well as I should have. I assumed that she was simply overprotective. To me most people seemed to be just fine. I followed her instructions more because I was afraid to incur her wrath if I were to disobey than because I felt that she was right. It would be years before I truly understood her concerns.
It is amazing how children can be so easily taken in by someone intent on doing evil. When I was not quite five years old I would get phone calls from a man who must have lived nearby because they only came when my mother was working in the yard or had dashed next door for a couple of minutes. They were shockingly vulgar and they made me want to cry. The perpetrator warned me that if I were to tell my mother terrible things would happen. I found myself getting quite nervous whenever my mother was not in the house. I didn’t want to hear the chiming of that bell. It was only when I could no longer bear the thought of the ugly comments that he made that I finally told Mama what had been happening. She blamed herself for not telling me how to handle such a situation and immediately gave me the key to happiness. It was so simple. All I had to do is hang up.
On another occasion not long after my father died our car ran out of gasoline while we were running errands. My mother told me to go to a service station that was within her view and ask the proprietor to bring enough gas to get the car going again. She told me to run back as quickly as possible once I had delivered the message. When I got there I encountered a seemingly very nice man who insisted that it would be quicker if I just jumped in the car with him which I did without a moment’s hesitation. My mother who was watching the scene unfold literally flipped out. Nothing happened and all ended well but Mama was beside herself with recriminations. I must have heard about my mistake hundreds of times. She became quite graphic about what might have occurred had the man had nefarious intentions. Only then did I realize why she had worried so much about how I had forgotten all of the warnings that she had given me in the past.
We never quite know how our children will react when we are not with them. They are so loving and innocent that they mostly believe that everyone else is as well. It is up to us to communicate clearly that when we set down rules and parameters they are not for the purpose of being mean or punishing them but to protect them even when they are alone. If we don’t overreact when our children come to us with disconcerting news they are far more likely to be open with us. It is important that we set a tone and an environment in which they will feel comfortable telling us anything. It also helps to give them a means of getting away from a situation that doesn’t feel right.
I had an agreement with my daughters that if they called and asked me to come get them I would not hound them for reasons why. They were free to be silent or to talk. Either way they would be rescued. I understood that sometimes teenagers are particularly hesitant to discuss the problems of their friends. I let them know that I would respect their privacy but that I would also be available for them at a moment’s notice. I had to follow through on my promise on more than one occasion. I would later learn that a party or a sleepover had become more raucous than my girls liked. They felt the need to get away from behaviors that were contrary to the way they did things but they didn’t want to force their views on the other kids.
Mostly my girls were quite honest with me. There were a couple of times when they described events that sounded so dangerous that I was compelled to quietly inform the other youngsters’ parents. Little did the young people know that we moms had a secret society in which we watched over one another and kept our children safe. The old time parent telegraph still works like a charm.
Some things never really change. The world has always had its dangers and parents have had to find ways to keep their young from harm. We are not always successful but we do our best. Charles Perrault did his part and created a written legacy of stories that are part of our heritage even as we have made them more amenable to the mind of a child.