I try to keep my children fed on a steady diet of fairy tales, usually at night just before bed. I’ve found that is the time of day most conducive to the imagination—the darkness, the shadowplay on the walls, the warm covers. That small period of time between awake and asleep is when all things seem most possible, both the good and the bad.
I tell their stories separately. My son usually goes first, as those fifteen minutes or so provide ample time for my daughter to discuss “girl things” with her mother. By the time I sit upon the edge of her bed and in the outer reaches of her Disney princess lamp, she’s more than ready to participate in a bit of reverie. But though these two sets of fairy tales involve two very different children, there is much in common as far as plot and characters go. These are, after all, fairy tales. They know what to expect.
Things like danger, for instance. Damsels in distress and princes in peril. There is lost treasure and hidden lands. Adventure and, at times, the very slightest hint of romance. And monsters. Usually monsters.
I’m sure there are a lot of parents out there who join me in these nightly visits, many of whom do so with this one goal in mind—to get their children to sleep. That is the goal. This isn’t always easily accomplished, but it usually works well enough. Better than threats, at least in my experience.
But I will say that getting my kids to sleep is only one of the purposes of the fairy tales, and not even the most important one. To me, the important one is that they become introduced to the power of story to shape their lives.
For thousands of years humanity sustained itself upon the very sorts of legends I read for and tell my children. They are our shared connection to the past, back to a time when they were shared to our forefathers around campfires and in great gathering halls. Stories not merely of King Arthur and Lady Guinevere, but also of Grendel and Achilles.
To speak of them and pass them on is to preserve the very best part of what it means to be human. They grant my children an education they sadly lack in their public schooling. I truly believe that. I believe that I not only entertain them, I teach them.
I teach them the values of things such as sacrifice and perseverance and honor. The healing that is found in forgiveness. The necessity of love. All virtues that make life not only more beautiful, but worth the living.
This past weekend brought alone with it the first of October and the promise of Halloween. That means both of my kids will require more scariness in their bedtime stories, an extra dose of monsters and witches and ghosts. I gladly acquiesce, even if that means the odds of a late-night bad dream increase.
The monsters have their own place in the stories that shape our lives, and that is a lesson I wish to teach them, too. Because truth be told, fairy tales aren’t really that far removed from reality. There really is treasure in this world; I’ve found some of my own. And there really are vast hidden lands, though they’re for the most part inside of us than out. My children will find their futures littered with danger and adventure and romance. I want them to know that ahead of time.
And they will confront their own monsters. I want them to know that ahead of time, too.
Not just that those monsters exist.
But that they can defeat them.