November 27, 2012

Raising Rapunzel: The Trouble With Fairy Tale Parents, By Lissa Sloan

It’s tough to be a fairy tale character. Not only do our heroes and heroines have to contend with witches, trolls, dragons, and sometimes even the devil himself, but there’s another menace—parents. Fairy tales are riddled with examples of abysmal parenting. Obviously there’s the jealous, even murderous, (step) mother, but there are plenty of others. There’s the self-important braggart. (“My daughter can spin straw into gold.” He knew she couldn’t—what was he thinking?) There’s the thoughtless gambler, who, when promising to give his rescuer the first thing to meet him on his return home, thinks it will be his faithful dog, not his faithful daughter. And the less said about Allerleirauh’s lecherous father, who wanted to marry her after her mother died, the better.

Fairy tales are full of parenting mistakes to avoid. For example, take poor Rapunzel. She has three unfit parents to contend with. Her father is of the typical meek variety, ruled by his unreasonable wife, who wants him to steal from the neighbor’s garden to satisfy her cravings. Like Cinderella’s and Hansel and Gretel’s fathers, he bows to the wishes of his wife, to the detriment of his child. Rapunzel’s mothers (biological and adoptive) have problems letting go. Letting a child go to make their own way in the world is a difficult matter for any parent, and Rapunzel’s mothers go to opposite extremes. Rapunzel’s birth mother lets her go too early and too easily, trading her to the witch next door for all the greens she can eat. The witch, on the other hand, refuses to let her go at all, locking her in a tower and shutting her away from the world.
"The Royal Nursery," by Marcus Stone
Sadly, it seems that the only fairy tale parents who are loving and nurturing die prematurely, leaving our grieving hero or heroine to face the world alone. While it is not their fault, the dead parent can’t do their child much good. Or can they? It turns out the dead parent can benefit their child, and they frequently do. In some versions of the Cinderella story, Cinderella plants a tree on her mother’s grave, and it is the tree, not a fairy godmother, which grants her wishes. In the Russian tale "Vasalisa the Fair," Vasalisa’s dying mother gives her a doll. Vasalisa keeps the doll in her pocket and feeds her, and receives the doll’s help and advice in return.

Despite their early deaths, good fairy tale parents manage to accomplish what all good parents strive to do. They give their children the tools they need to face the world. They may provide magical tools, like Vasalisa’s doll, or they may perform the more everyday magic of passing on their values, wisdom, and of course, their love. Most importantly, in dying, the good parents step aside, beginning the child’s journey of self-discovery which lies at the heart of most fairy tales. In fact, setting their child on the road to their adventure is something even a wicked stepmother or thoughtless father can do. Which is why, despite her neglectful birth parents, and possessive witch mother, Rapunzel--and Cinderella, and Snow White, and all the others--will be just fine.
Lissa has contributed stories, poems and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at


Anonymous said...

Lissa Slaon has a good point in the story, “Raising Rapunzel: The Trouble With Fairy Tale Parents.” While fairy tales tend to be full of horrible, self-centered parents, there of course are always exceptions. Sometimes the parents do love their children and do not want to leave their sides, but often death takes them away, or there are often times when the parents are just too poor, and in hopes of bettering their offspring’s life they are sometimes given to richer/better off people in hopes that the children will be happier, and will be well taken care of. The outcome of the children seems to all workout for the better either way. Even if the children are spoiled and then punished in the end, it all seems to work out, with a lesson learned and appreciation for the lesson. In many ways the parenting skills that are described in fairy tales are also represented in real life. In real life sometimes parents do not have the money, and so they give their precious baby up for adoption, in hopes that better off parents will adopt. Even bad parents have a way of turning out wonderful children. It’s a very interesting way of thinking about parenthood, comparing them to fairy tales.
Serena W. 11 Ex. Credit
November 27, 2012

Ruth S. said...

This topic can cause great discussion in fairy tales! The family dynamic is usually what structures the plot of most fairy tales. For example the story of Hansel and Gretel is one that I have studied immensely individually and in class. Although it is apparent that their father shares love and compassion for his children, he still allows his wife to convince him into leaving them in the woods. This role of a naïve father is not necessarily what people see everyday in a family. Usually the father should be the “head” of the family, who protects his children. On another note, your discussion about Cinderella’s grandmother granting her wishes but her looking up to her mother really interested me. It makes me wonder that if a story was created with Cinderella’s mother being alive and present, I wonder how it would affect the story.

Unknown said...

Parents’ being the ultimate villain in fairy tales is strangely the truth. In all the more popular fairy tales, the person that we think of doing wrong is typically the parent. For centuries people have been writing fairy tales that denote parents as the wrongful doer because it teaches that even the people that we look up too everyday can have a dark side. An even though we like to think of fairytales consisting of happy endings and magical unicorns, they reveal much of what reality truly is. Fairy tales that consist of evil parents are good because they can make people realize how important parents and parenting is. Without proper parenting it is only a gamble of how that child will turn out. Overall I liked this forum and it reveals much truth about fairy tales denoting parents as villains which opens the question as to why have fairy tales always have parents that make wrongful decisions.

Manjai Z said...

Sloan made some wonderful points about fairy tales parents. Fairy tales made it seem like, Rapunzel parents give her away because they had no choice, when in reality, no man or woman who strongly desired a child of their own, would have never given their only chance of being a parent away to another. I must say, being African, my mother always told me to know that, death could never destroy the amount of love them have for me. We believe that when a parent or parents die, they are always watching over us with love, and most importantly protecting us with all the love they once had for us. I know that death is something that no man can control, and some fairly tales tried to make that clear to their readings, and listeners. Fairy tales have always made people believe that the idea of a step parents is not a good one. However in reality, many step parents end up taking the difficult path of parenting a hurting child, or one that once felt unloved by their biological parent or parents. Sloan made a good point, about how parents such as Rapunzel parents are never view as bad parents, by giving their only child away, instead the witch is looked upon as evil for taking the child and raising her.

Unknown said...

How disheartening it must be to be a parent and read a fairy tale to your children. Those fairy tales with good parents are very few and far between. Lissa Sloan does a good job of identifying the bad parents in popular fairy tales, however, she does fail to mention those stories with an absent parent. A parent who SHOULD be there, but for some reason sits back and fades into the background. Take for example the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White. Everyone remembers the evil stepmother who becomes queen. However, there is no mention of the father. The King is not dead. He does not step in to stop the ateempted murder of his daughter. He merely ceases to exist in the story. Cinderella is another example. Once again, everyone remembers the evil stepmother and the evil stepsisters. However, the father is still around, but conspicuously missing once again. Not only do these poor children have to cope with the active abuse of one parent, they also have to deal with the passive neglect of the other parent. This is even more shameful because they are the birth parents in these two examples, and should have more of an interest in the lives of their children.

Christie said...

As a parent, and an appreciator of fairy tales, I enjoyed this essay so much!

Anonymous said...

Parents are a tricky thing in fairytales. It’s like there is no perfect balance between them. I’m sure there are some pretty awful parents out there, but I love my parents dearly and always will. It’s sad but true that all of the good parental figures in fairytales die early and leave us with nothing but the worst and most evil ones. Although they are solely there to teach parents and children a lesson, it would be a nice change to see a loving parents and family for once. Since these fairytales are mainly told and written for children, why are we being so cruel? We’re just going to scare them into thinking that all parents are like this, or that they’re going to die soon. I’m sure this wasn’t the sole intent of the writer, but it really is such an awful thing to read to your children.

Taylor B.

Anonymous said...

Lissa brings up some good points in this. Parenting in pretty much all fairy tales are always the villain. Not all of the fairy tales but most of them. There is either the parents that die and there children get left of the step mothers that are jealous of the princess in the stories. We like to believe that all fairy tales have happy endings because that is what we are all used to seeing in the movies, not so much in the fairy tales that we are reading in class but it teaches us what parenting can really do to a child if not raised properly. T.R.