Why are children’s stories so scary sometimes?

The lights are low, Baby is warm and snuggly in their PJs right out of the bath, damp head leaning on your shoulder, and all you need is a soothing story to send them nodding off to dreamland. You reach for a classic, a book of fairy tales with friendly illustrations – and watch as Baby shakes their sleepiness off to focus in on evil fairies who steal children, to ask why Hansel and Gretel’s father just left them in the woods, and to wonder about just why Goldilocks thought it was okay to eat someone else’s breakfast.

As Baby gets older, you’ll notice that fairy tales aren’t the only kind of children’s book that can come across as surprisingly dark. As an adult, it’s easy to forget how scary and how serious some of your own favorite stories when you were growing up might have been. For one thing, there’s a centuries-long tradition of filling children’s stories with orphans.

Fairy tales

There’s an easy answer to why fairy tales originally collected and published as Grimm’s Fairy Tales often feel like they’re too dark for children – they weren’t created with children in mind to begin with. The fairy tales that make it into the collection curated by the Brothers Grimm – including classics like Snow White, Cinderella, and other stories that were later adapted into Disney movies – were originally folk tales that were told by, for, and to adults.

The fairy tales in the Brothers Grimm’s books may be darker than stories most modern parents would read to young children, but in putting together their book, the Grimms actually made these stories more child-friendly. The wicked queen is still punished at the end of Snow White by being forced to dance herself to death in red hot iron shoes, so imagine what the original stories might have sounded like – or don’t, if you want to sleep tonight.

Other children’s books

Fairy tales aren’t alone, though, and in answering the question of why so many children’s books are so dark, there’s also an answer to the question of why the grim, strange, adult stories that became fairy tales turned into a part of childhood at all. Some psychologists suggest that dark and scary stories give children the tools for dealing with their own fears.

Losing their parents, and being alone, are big fears for many toddlers and young children – and between separation anxiety and the way so many young children resist being put to bed, they make sure their parents or caregivers know it. Being orphaned, being alone, and being put in a position where they’re made to strike out on their own is one of the most common elements in this kind of scary children’s story, but it’s not something that happens at the end of the story, or something the tale builds to. Instead, it’s something that happens early on, and then the characters in these stories go on to become heroes. Scary stories that include fairy tale versions of real toddler fears leave children with a model for going on after something they’re scared of has happened.

Children’s stories often tell moral lessons – don’t steal from bears; slow and steady wins the race; someday your prince will come. The lessons they really teach young children may be more basic, though; even if the scariest thing you can think of happens, you can still make it to happily ever after in just a few pages – with a little good luck and a little quick thinking, and maybe a little magical help.

When are children ready to hear fairy tales and other scarier stories?

Reading scary stories before bed can inspire some scary dreams, and you know Baby best, so you’re the best judge of whether a certain story is going to push them over the edge into a restless sleep. Bedtime isn’t the only time you can read together, though, and if Baby is interested in fairy tales and scary stories, reading them together is a great way to help foster their intellectual curiosity.

As Baby grows older, their interests will probably start to guide more and more of your choices in the stories you read together. If Baby brings over a book of fairy tales, though, it may be worth peeking ahead to figure out which version of the story they're dug out of a dusty corner of the library, and if this version might be too scary – or just the right fit – for bedtime reading. 

  • Lisa Belkin. “Are Fairy Tales Too Scary for Children?” New York Times. New York Times, January 12 2009. Retrieved September 8 2017. https://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/are-fairytales-to-scary-for-children/?mcubz=1.
  • Tom de Castella. “Roald Dahl and the Darkness Within.” BBC News Magazine. BBC, September 12 2011. Retrieved September 8 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14880441.
  • Stephen Evans. “Are Grimm’s Fairy Tales too Twisted for Children?” BBC. BBC, October 21 2014. Retrieved September 8 2017. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130801-too-grimm-for-children.
  • Patti Jones. “Should Kids Read Scary Stories?” Parents. meredith women’s network. Retrieved September 8 2017. http://www.parents.com/fun/entertainment/books/should-kids-read-scary-stories/?page=2.
  • Scott Meslow. “Fairy Tales Started Dark, Got Cute, And Are Now Getting Dark Again.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, May 31 2012. Retrieved September 8 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/fairy-tales-started-dark-got-cute-and-are-now-getting-dark-again/257934/.
  • NPR Staff. “Today’s Fairy Tales Started Out (Even More) Dark and Harrowing.” NPR. NPR, November 14 2016. Retrieved September 8 2017. http://www.npr.org/2014/11/16/364089661/todays-fairy-tales-started-out-even-more-dark-and-harrowing.
  • Maria Tatar. The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Second Edition. Princeton University Press. 1978, 2003. Print.
  • “Fairytales too scary for modern children, say parents.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, February 12 2012. Retrieved September 8 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9078489/Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html. 

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