Fairy tales and critical thinking
Can your child think critically? Perhaps Hansel and Gretel and Snow White can lend a hand.
Everyone thinks. We think about people, things, places or just about anything that we see or hear. But much of our thinking is like an angry wild animal on the loose: irrational, distorted and prejudiced. Such shoddy thinking can reduce our quality of life, as we often end up making the wrong choices and decisions.
On the other hand, according to The Critical Thinking Community, critical thinking is “that mode of thinking in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking.” If you want your child to be an excellent problem-solver and grow up to be a rational and broad-minded person, then you need to improve how she thinks.
You will be surprised to know that you can start your child early on the critical thinking track with a childhood staple. In an interview with the Guardian, Richard Dawkins, a former professor at Oxford University, pointed out that there is a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child’s critical thinking skills.
Find out how fairy tales can give you a critical thinker on the next page.
Hansel and Gretel: The case of gender bias
The good ol’ fairy tales are truly a gold mine of texts for children. Not only do they fire up the imagination, they also present prejudices.
In most stories, there is almost always a controversial issue and some flawed assumptions. These are just the perfect conditions to ask your child the why-not questions to provoke him and encourage critical thinking.
Let us take the case of Hansel and Gretel. In this fairy tale, a boy, Hansel, and his sister, Gretel, are abandoned in the forest, twice, by their stepmother.
The children find their way back home the first time they are left in the forest. But on the second time, they get truly lost and end up being tricked by a witch who traps them and plans to eat them. In the end, the two children save their lives by outwitting her and returning home to their father.
If you read the story, you would realise that Gretel cries each time she and Hansel are left in the forest by their stepmother late at night, and Hansel always says “Don’t worry, I will take care of you.”
The issue? Only the girl is crying, like she needs protection from the boy. Gender-bias, totally.
But how can we make this obvious to our little one?
Click to the next page to read about my conversation with my child about Hansel and Gretel .
Talking to your child about stereotypes
Here’s an interesting conversation I had with my five-year-old son a few days ago about the story of Hansel and Gretel. The conversation went something like this:
Me : Why do you think only Gretel is crying, not Hansel? (why not)
Son: Because boys don’t cry.
Me: Oh, why not?
Son : Because boys are stronger than girls!
Me : Hmmm, don’t boys feel sad or scared or happy? (why not)
Me: Do boys laugh when they are happy?
Me: So then if boys are sad or scared, can they not cry? (why not)
Son: (silence – in thinking mode).
Me : If girls are sad or scared, do they do something else besides crying?
Son : They also scream. Hazel and Jazreal always scream. Actually, Raphael also sometimes cries…that time when teacher Michelle scolded him for not finishing his porridge.
Me: Right….so different people show their feelings differently? It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl? (why not)
Son: It doesn’t matter …Hansel can cry if he wants.
My son realised, on his own, how biased he really was. And I helped him by simply asking him why-not questions.
In the same story, you can pick out many other such biases. Lead your child to think about cruel stepmothers and mother figures and question why the father did not defend his children. Ask the why-not questions and get your child to clear his or her mind of stereotypes!
Ponder on the what-ifs for fairy tale endings
Our children all know about consequences. They learn that when you send them to their rooms for throwing a tantrum or when you take away TV time for refusing to put away their toys.
However, consequences in real life are never black and white, never so simple and straightforward. The earlier our children realise that, the better quality of thinking and life they will have.
Just ask them ‘what-happens-if’ questions. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one fairy tale on which we can try this.
In the story, Snow White, a beautiful young girl, is ordered by her jealous stepmother, the evil queen, to be killed. The huntsman who is tasked to kill her, however, takes pity on her and allows her to escape.
Snow White ends up living happily in a house of seven dwarfs. Her happiness is short-lived, though, when the evil queen, in disguise, tries to kill her.
The ending is a happy one. Snow White is saved by a handsome prince who, charmed by her beauty, kisses her back to life, and they live happily ever after.
One issue we can bring up is about the huntsman choosing to let Snow White escape.
Here are the questions you can ask your child about this:
- What happened because of this?
- Do you think it was right of him not to obey the queen’s orders?
- What would have happened if he did obey the queen’s instructions?
Another issue you can raise with your child is about how Snow White was highly advised by the seven dwarfs not to open the door to strangers, but she still did – three times – and almost getting killed each time by the queen.
You can ask your child these questions to explore this issue:
- What do you think would have happened if Snow White had listened to the dwarfs and did not open the door to strangers?
- What do you think the queen would have done then? Why?
These questions help broaden your child’s mind, making him think about the many consequences and the possible alternatives. They open up the mind, and sometimes, even the heart.
You might not be a fan of fairy tales, but using such stories to ask your child why-not and what-happens-if will start your child on the road to thinking critically.
Do you have any other tips on how to promote critical thinking in children? Do share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.