by Dawne McFarlane - Storytellying Educator at RSCT
“ The child’s soul has an overpowering need to let fairy tale substance flow through itself,- just as the human body needs to let food substance circulate through it.” Rudolf Steiner (from “Fairy Tale Hunger,” Von Kugelgen)
As you can nourish your children’s growing bodies, so you can nourish their imaginations with stories. Fairy/folk tales are rich nourishment for the listener and the teller. There are rhythms and rhymes, patterns and repetition that appeal to children and guide the teller in remembering the sequences of the story. There are archetypal characters that symbolize goodness, evil, kindness, selfishness, loyalty, betrayal, light and dark. Goodness is always rewarded, and evil is always punished. Archetypal characters portray the human condition, providing noble examples to follow, evil ones to beware, and much more.
“A true fairy tale speaks pictorially of transformation, enchantment, release, telling over and over in this way the secrets of human existence. Man’s spiritual origin, his challenges, his victories and deliverances, all are described in child-language for a childlike humanity.” Helmut VonKugelgen, “Fairy Tale Hunger”
Children, in their innocence, still encounter darkness and light within their own character, and stories provide a safe and contained place for these emotions and sentiments to play out.
"Folktales are records of emotions carried through the centuries- part of a child’s rehearsals for adult life." Bruno Bettleheim
There is no need to explain who is good, bad, selfish, or kind in the stories. It is clear to the children in ways that adults may not be aware of. The British storyteller Peter Chand recalls telling the story of “The Three Little Pigs” to a classroom of young children. When the wolf blew down the little pig’s house, one child cried out “the bastard!” Later the teacher explained that it was unusual behaviour for that child to speak out like that, but the landlord was evicting his family from their home.
Stories can be selected to address issues the children are dealing with. When my oldest son was around 4 years old, he started having temper tantrums of great dimensions, usually in very public places while my arms were full with my youngest son. I tried carrying protein rich snacks at all times to ward off such moments, balancing our activities more mindfully, and other tactics I thought would solve the problem, but the temper tantrums continued and my patience wore thin. I read Dan Yashinsky’s account of using storytelling to distract children from difficult moments and help move through them. So the next time it happened, I started telling “Rumpelstiltskin,” who has a big temper tantrum at the end of the story and pulls himself in two. Of course I didn’t mean to frighten my child, and yet I thought there might be something cathartic about it for him. It distracted him and his brother, allowed me to breathe, and helped me to be a better parent in a precarious moment. I brought out that same story years later while they were arguing in the back of the car while I was driving on a long journey, and spun it out in “pre-teen” lingo for 2 hours, and their tempers cooled. It all sounds very calm now in recollection, but of course it wasn’t at the time and I wasn’t as mindful about it all in the moment as I can be looking back on it. It did illuminate to me that telling stories can be healing for listeners and tellers, and can help transform a difficult moment into a magical one. That doesn’t mean when they start hitting each other you launch into a story! It just means that in addition to instruction, “we don’t hit each other,” a story can help transmit lessons of good and bad behaviour in picture images to young children that they can receive readily.
"We’re hard wired for stories. If you want to tell somebody something…and really get the point across, you’re much more likely to be able to do it, in an emotionally affecting way, through a story." Margaret Atwood, Oct. 17/11 CBC radio interview
When children are older, you can talk more about the meaning of the story with them. My sons got really tired of the story “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” where each man thinks that the whole elephant is just like the ears, tusks, tail, or whatever section they can touch. However, it did help us to talk about all of the different points of view of the conflict at hand. The older the child or young adult, the more you can talk about the meaning of the story. And yet, there is always ancient wisdom that remains mysterious, lying just beyond our consciousness, working within us in ways we may realize years later. I worked with the story of “Snow White and Rose Red” for years before I noticed that there were two girls but only one guardian angel, and began to wonder what that might symbolize. And that’s the magic of story- there is so much to discover.
“The folk tale is the primer of the picture language of the soul.” Joseph Campbell, from the Commentary in the Grimm’s collection
There is a wholeness in fairy/folk tales that is important for young children. The kingdoms of nature, animals, and people live in harmony. Magic and wonder can be found everywhere. Young children perceive the world in this way, and fairy tales make sense to them. Nourishing them with picture images of wholeness and harmony gives them the capacity to imagine wholeness and harmony. It seems to me the more children are nourished by images of goodness and beauty, the more they will be able to face the darkness in the world when they are older, and imagine how the damage they encounter may be restored to wholeness and beauty. And therein lies our hope for the future.
Come and work with Dawne McFarlane at her summer workshop:
The Wisdom of the Fool
Monday July 9 through Friday July 13
Summer Festival of Arts and Education
Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto.