My daughter is 2 1/2. She recently received a book of the top 10 princess stories that seems to be encouraging her to enter the "princess phase" -- as many moms seem to call it. I run my own business, teaching women how to let go of trying to be perfect and learn to courageously follow their values while being ambitious at the same time. As I was reading to my daughter; "Snow White and her prince had recently been married, and they were living happily at the castle," I realized that from a very young age, we are programmed to believe that life is happy and carefree and fairly perfect, and we should be, too.
Earlier this year, I was visiting my mom and she brought out a bunch of old books from her attic from when we were children. One of them was an original Brothers Grimm fairy tale book. As I skimmed through the pages, I was shocked (a bit horrified, actually) by some of the stories. People were dying, drowning, killing and hurting each other. And I thought, Wow, I can't believe we used to read this to our children. Fast-forward six months, when I'm reading to my daughter about a princess living happily with her prince, and it struck me: We have completely sanitized our children's stories -- to their detriment.
My husband, for example, said he prefers to skip the second part of this page in Dr. Seuss that says "Day, play, we play all day. Night, fight, we fight all night." Sometimes, people do disagree and it can turn into a fight. Are we hoping that if we hide this information from our children, they will not argue or fight with each other? It's in our basic human nature to fight, to be sad, hurtful, angry and scared.
When we censor our children's stories to exclude the suffering that is inherent in the human condition, we isolate our children. We create an environment that promotes shame and a belief that they are not good enough because they cannot live up to the standards portrayed in these stories.
I've been learning a great deal about self-compassion lately, and one of the main tenets of self-compassion is common humanity. The ability to recognize that we are not alone in our suffering, that other people have had similar situations. This actually helps us feel better because it's not just us.
Many fairy tales completely negate the suffering that is common to all people. If everyone is living happily once they find their prince, what does that tell young women about how their relationships "should" be? If women are valued for looking pretty and for finding a prince rather than for hard work, resilience, courage and powerful vulnerability, what is that telling our children -- sons and daughters -- about how women "should" behave and what they "should" focus on?
What can we do about this? I rewrote my daughter's story. I simply changed the words each time I read it from "Snow White lived happily with her prince at the castle," to "Snow White lived with her prince at the castle, sometimes they were happy, sometimes they were sad, sometimes they were angry, scared, silly or grateful." I tried not to make too big a deal of it because I am not anti-princess. I want to support being feminine and honoring our beauty -- inside and out. I was simply hoping to provide a more balanced approach.
In the movie Ever After with Drew Barrymore, at the end, the storyteller concludes that yes, they did live happily ever after, but more importantly, they lived. This is what I want to emphasize with my daughter.
My daughter is also in a phase where she loves pretending to read a book by memorizing some of the words and turning the pages at the appropriate time. The other day, she picked up her Top 10 Princess Stories and said, "Snow White lived with her prince, sometimes they were happy, sad or scared." And in the moment when she "read" those words, I thought, it's going to be OK.
Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur and former private equity investor whose company, Akoya Power, supports women in leading more purposeful professional lives. She is also the Co-Founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, the New MBA, a company that provides corporate workshops, retreats, in-person and online educational tools to help high potential women leaders learn how to lean in without burning out.
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Vanessa received her MBA from Stanford University and is certified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), executive coaching and past life regression hypnosis. You can read more at Vanessa's blog, Akoya Power or find her on twitter @akoyapower.
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