Maarja Vaino: How fairy tales will save the world

Maarja Vaino
Maarja Vaino Source: ERR

Estonian and literature classes form a nucleus of education – cutting their share would result in children with poor language and reading skills who cannot understand text or study assignments also in other classes, Maarja Vaino writes in a comment originally published in Õpetajate Leht.

Studies suggest Estonian children are having more mental health problems. The mental health of children is affected to a growing degree by the internet and time spent online, as well as screen time as a whole (TV, computer, other electronic devices).

Around half of 11-15-year-olds spend five or more hours in front of screens every school day as excessive use of the internet has graduated into an addiction. It manufactures languor, the sensation of boredom and pointlessness, contributes to difficulty concentrating etc.

The more time we spend in virtual reality and machines so to speak, the more we start thinking about ourselves as machines. But man is more than a functional system, an imperfect artificial intelligence.

A person's life is given meaning by self-realization, the need and opportunity to grow mentally. A person needs meaningfulness, rich life experience, new challenges. They also need safety, significance and value systems.

Effect of reading

We have somehow reached a world where mankind is preparing to fly to Mars, while it cannot cure feelings of emptiness or angst.

In the race for who has the most things by the time they die, we have forgotten that success can only be found by people who have developed personalities with an integral psyche in their childhood. And that children are creatures whose psyche is fragile, still developing. People who are only getting to know life and cannot, nor could they possibly take full responsibility for their lives before becoming adults.

Sometimes it seems we have allowed the lives of our children to become too complicated to soon.

If we want our children to do well in life, to be able to handle themselves and what surrounds them, we need to allow their emotional life to develop and foster their concentration, contemplation, value judgments and creativity.

One simple step on that road is reading to them (and children reading themselves, of course). At the same time, it is not completely irrelevant what a child reads. Perhaps it would be sensible to start reading children fairy tales once more?

American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim published a study on the therapeutic effect of fairy tales on children already back in 1976. Archetypes always work, also in our changed world. Let us recall a few simple truths of why reading (fairy tales) is beneficial.

Moral compass

First of all. Fairy tales are stories where the world is usually black and white – the good are good and the bad are bad. Yes, in life, people learn that not everything is always black and white, but to realize this, a child must first develop a kind of mental order.

If we try and explain the world in all its complexity – something that even adults cannot understand – to a small child, it will spawn worry and uncertainty in their soul. This anxiety is difficult to get out later in life.

And attention! Even in their simplicity, fairy tales are fairly demanding, telling stories about complex aspects of life, such as evil, good, fear, hate, love, friendship, greed, causality etc. Fairy tales are instructional stories that give a little person their own moral compass with which to organize the unfathomable world.

Secondly. Fairy tales make children fantasize and create connections, which is a prerequisite of success in the modern world. We keep hearing how global labor market trends increasingly value creativity.

Creativity is best expressed when a person's intellectual development has been supported and consistent, when their surroundings have taken into account from the first that a person's needs are tied to their mental development. The role of the humanities has increasingly been pushed aside in the economic and science-centered world, while that is where the key to success lies hidden.

And in the manifestation of creativity, a person's proficiency of their mother tongue plays an instrumental role. A child's mental development is measured by their language skills. A person who is proficient in their native tongue is more capable of abstract thought and putting their ideas into words. Therefore, reading is key to both a good perception of language and mental development in general.

Role of fiction

Thirdly. It's the humanities, and literature especially that plays a crucial part in growing empathy.

Time and again, I am reminded of the words of Neil Gaiman:

"I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure."

Neuroscience studies have shown that reading fiction develops a person's empathy, imagination and is generally tied to their social capacity or the ability to cope with life.

Fiction is unique in that it allows a person to create their own one of a kind world, invest in characters in a way that no other art form makes possible.

Yes, we identify with movie characters, are moved by music and art. But nothing can replace the effect of reading and fiction. Let us also recall Einstein who, when asked how children should be raised for them to be intelligent, said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be even more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Fourthly. Abstract thought helps a person create connections and draw conclusions. It is mental activity a person needs every day, from daily logistics to decisions of which party to vote for or what to do for a living.

Abstract thought helps a person imagine what would happen if they acted in different ways. It helps one to understand processes in one's life and society, shape opinions of them and affect them.

The fewer people who can imagine the consequences of decisions, processes and actions, the bigger the easily manipulated mass becomes. And the more primitive social environment is rendered.

Fifthly. Fiction is telling stories that helps a person perceive narrativity. Every person's identity is made up of stories, a person is a collection of memories and properties through which they define themselves.

A person with no memory is as if they do not exist, while stories create the identity of both individuals and entire civilizations. Man's need to tell and listen to stories is ancient, it has not been artificially created, it exists naturally and does not depend on external changes. Reading and storytelling brings vocabulary, the wealth of which largely affects the scope of how we perceive the world.

Language and literature classes

Just 15 minutes of reading (to a child before they go to sleep or in a literature class):

  • grows vocabulary;
  • grows the child's brain. The more we read to children and the more they read themselves, the better neuros in their brain develop and connect;
  • is almost always a learning process;
  • develops empathy;
  • helps the ability to concentrate and improve behavior;
  • strengthens the bond with the child and counts as time spent together creating memories;
  • creates cultural continuity and strengthens bonds between generations, peers and families;

The most important is what takes place at home and whether families find the time to read and discuss stories together. While what happens at school and in curricula is also consequential. The school system should have enough time for language and literature classes – it is not a side-activity to picked up when there's time left over from other subjects.

Native language and literature classes form a nucleus of education – cutting their volume will result in children with a poor command of language and ability to read who cannot understand text or study assignments also in other classes. Language and literature classes are what foster the ability to concentrate, read substantial texts, analyze and interpret them, create connections etc.

Which in turn is the best possible foundation for enrolling at university, being successful in life or the ability to benefit from lifelong learning – for the purpose of mental development.

Maintaining the continuity of national culture is equally important. Cultural disruption is serious business. How many fairy tales do today's kids still know?

C. S. Lewis has said, "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again."

I hope that beautiful day will dawn soon.


The article is based on Maarja Vaino's speech of the same name delivered at Rae municipality's education conference "Loovuse säilitamine või välja harimine."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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