Fairytales can nurture a child’s imagination and teach them about real life. Experts agree their overall effect is positive, but not always.

Fairytales — make-believe stories that often reflect reality — give children space to expand their imaginations and teach them how to relate to people in real life.

These tales explore common themes, such as loyalty, justice, greed, right versus wrong, and the triumph of good over evil.

Although fairytales contain unrealistic themes and tend to perpetuate stereotypes, experts agree that they have an overall positive effect on a child’s development.

For example, learning about two characters at odds with each other can open a discussion about conflict children might experience in their own lives with siblings, parents, or classmates.

Think about the tension Cinderella has with her stepsisters, or how two very different characters come to appreciate and love each other in The Beauty and the Beast.

Albert Einstein once said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.”

So, how do fairytales benefit or contribute to a child’s development? And what role do they play in a child’s overall well-being?

By seeing themselves reflected in fairytales, children may feel more comfortable in themselves. They may even be inspired to explore their own emotions.

On the surface, “The Three Little Pigs” seems like a lesson about choosing the right material to build a house — but kids can read deeper meanings into the tale. For example, a study reports how the tale helped sick children ease their anxieties and fears around their illness by labeling it the “big bad wolf.”

The researchers noted that fairytales allowed the kids to “get in touch safely with danger and death anxieties.”

Other research, including a small 2014 study, has suggested that using narrative strategies and storytelling — such as fairytales and traditional folk tales — may improve a person’s overall well-being. The study found that fairytales had a positive effect on the people’s personal growth and self-acceptance.

And, a small 2018 study found that fairytales had a positive effect on building a child’s sense of cooperation.

And a 2016 study, which looked into 353 school-age children for 2 years, found that narrative therapy effectively improved social and emotional skills in children ages 8 to 10.

Fairytales can also teach children about self-awareness and emotional regulation, according to the study.

Fairytales have been told for centuries over and over in slightly different ways in cultures across the world.

Perhaps the most well-known tales involve a princess or a prince who faces obstacles they must overcome in order to find happiness or make the world a better place.

But, is the notion of a princess or a prince — with their sparkly clothes and fancy digs — healthy and appropriate for kids? And does it place too much emphasis on appearances and undue pressure on young girls?

Sarah M. Coyne, PhD, a professor at the School of Family Life at Bringham Young University in Provo, Utah, first researched the topic of princess culture because she was concerned about her 4-year-old daughter’s fascination with dressing like a princess from fairytales.

Coyne’s 2016 study on the subject found that among preschool-aged girls a Disney princess culture amplifies gender stereotypes.

“Our prior study found that in the short-term, princess culture had a negative effect. But this changes over time,” Coyne said in a release announcing the results of a second study in 2021. “We’re now seeing long-term positive effects of princess culture on how we think about gender.”

In the 2021 study, Coyne surveyed more than 300 children and their parents when the kids were preschoolers and again 5 years later.

Her research indicates that greater engagement in princess culture at a younger age resulted in more progressive attitudes about women in early adolescence. It also promoted a belief that education, relationships, and careers were equally important for women and men.

“Princesses like Moana are full of depth, passion, and goodness,” Coyne notes in the release. “The story isn’t about how she looks, it’s about following your dreams and finding who you are. Parents can take these interpersonal qualities and help their kids grow.”

A 2011 Greek study, involving more than 400 participants, noted that fairytales are an integral part of a child’s development as they promote personality building, family bonding, and self-discovery.

Reading fairytales can benefit child development in a variety of ways. Exposure to fairytales during childhood can:

  • entertain children while teaching the basic structure of telling a story
  • foster child development by allowing children to project their imaginations and creativity into a story
  • help dispel fears of the unknown
  • help children cope with the difficulties of growing up and foster a belief for a better tomorrow
  • help children learn about conflict and possible ways to solve a problem
  • explore universal themes, such as love and hate, fear and courage, and greed and generosity in the safety of an interesting story
  • provide a way to validate emotions a child may be feeling in real life

For parents who prefer to stay away from fairytales, there are plenty of alternative book choices.

Wordless picture books are great to introduce little ones to reading. Or you may want to choose a book of fiction about birds, airplanes, flowers, or something specific that interests your child.

To spark your child’s creativity, you can make homemade books that include photos and captions that tell your child’s own story.

You can also label drawings brought home from school and put them together to make a book you and your child can read together.

Other ways to nurture your child’s creativity include:

You can also try these suggestions from kidshealth.org.

Fairytales are an important part of childhood. These make-believe stories that often reflect reality give children the opportunity to nurture their imaginations and teach them about situations and feelings they can face in real life.

Yes, fairytales often contain themes that are unrealistic and tend to perpetuate gender stereotypes. But experts agree that their overall effect on children is positive, from strengthening their creativity to helping them cope with difficult situations.

There are alternatives to fairytales, however, if you worry these stories might scare children or send the wrong message. These include nature theme books, homemade books, and activities such as listening to and playing music and exploring the outdoors.