My 10-year old boy recently told me that he likes the Cinderella fairy tale.

Some fairy tales including this one, have several layers of meaning and sometimes they guide people's life decisions.

Let's look at Cinderella from a realistic point of view: The stepmother humiliates Cinderella for a long time, while her father is watching and doing nothing about it. Her father is the first man she knows.

It's totally reasonable that she holds a grudge against him (for not preventing the attacks of the stepmother), and because she doesn't know other men, she is likely to project this concept to other men as well.

In her family she didn't have a chance to take revenge for her sufferings.

This changes when Prince Charming enters her life. It is likely that Cinderella will vent her anger on him and he won't fight back because he is noble and such.

Unfortunately, real life is full of stories when Cinderellas either

  • tolerate intolerable behavior from bad men/criminals and
  • reject all those people (men and women), who treat them well.

I fear that if I don't tell my son about these hidden meanings, he may get the wrong impression that it is easy to be together with a real-life Cinderella, i.e. that you can improve the life of a "broken" woman without investing enormous amount of time, energy, love, money and sometimes major sacrifices in lost career/business opportunities. A real-life Prince Charming would need - besides a genuine love to Cinderella, which borders on insanity - a couple of decades of intensive work to heal Cinderella's wounds (based on my experience).

I also fear that he might have the wrong idea on the probability of success: Lots of men waste their resources on Cinderellas because the latter don't want to be saved (to lead a normal life without daily humiliation and/or violence).

Is there any possible harm if I tell my kid now about the hidden meaning of Cinderella?

Update 1: Re-formulating my question:

Can there be any harm to my son in

  1. telling him that there are many ways to look at that fairy tale and
  2. explain to him, how I interpret it (and why I don't like it)

at this particular age?

In other words: Isn't he too young to learn about the existence of these unhealthy relationships?

  • 22
    Hi, and welcome to Parenting.SE! While I think it's debatable whether or not most popular fairy tales actually teach positive, healthy lessons, I'm not sure all issues you mentioned exist in all versions of Cinderella. Also, I think your interpretation of the hidden meaning is not universal, and you may have trouble getting answers that don't also argue the specifics of the unintended meanings of Cinderella. Perhaps you could word it more openly, like the question I linked to, without some of the specifics people may get hung up on?
    – user11394
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 6:33
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    It is certainly appropriate to discuss that not everyone who is a victim of such abuse ends up living "happily ever after," sometimes because they develop maladaptive behaviors that are left untreated. But it is not impossible to find oneself with a loving partner after abuse. There's no evidence from the story that Cinderella takes the path you describe. It's also possible that her problems will manifest themselves in other ways (e.g. depression and anxiety but not hostility), or that Cinderella would be MORE affectionate because she appreciates the Prince's kindness that much more. Commented May 13, 2015 at 22:16
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    You've written a lot here about why you don't like Cinderella. Did you think to ask him why he does? (If you can have that conversation with an open mind, I'd start there, and see where it leads. But if you start that conversation only so you can have your little rant, then I retract my advice). P.S. Cinderella has been a popular tale for a long time. Rossini wrote an opera around it.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 2:08
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    RE: Long story short: A woman in an emergency could get help from 3 different parties. She refused all of them, married a jerk and pissed off all three of them so that now no one of them wants to talk to her. What in the world does this have to do with your young son enjoying a fairy tale? You sound like you should be talking with a psychiatrist about why you don't like Cinderella – not your 10-year-old son. Yes, there are unhealthy relationships in the world; yes, as a parent, it's your job to give your children sense to avoid them. But don't blame Cinderella for your friend's bad choices.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:36
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    Really? So all women that went through bad relationships are "broken"? And you feel you need to warn your 10 year old son to avoid broken women? This has way more to do with you than Cinderella. If anything, Cinderella is bad as it reinforces the helpless girl that needs a prince to rescue her. And that's only bad if it's a line that's commonly repeated. Otherwise, wow, you're projecting a bit much.
    – MichaelGG
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 9:03

9 Answers 9


What you should not do is to simply talk badly about a favourite story of his.

What you could do instead is put the story into perspective - and don't do this with this fairy tale alone, but with as many as possible. If you do this as an "early start to literary studies" you might actually do him a favour.

Topics to cover could be:

  • Core message or teaching of the specific fairy tale.
    Example: Little Red Riding Hood (Красная Шапочка) teaches not to trust random strangers and to stay on a given real or metaphorical path.
  • Hidden meaning and symbolism.
    Example: The wolf is not an animal but a predatory human.
  • Set of characters and characteristic behaviour; archetypes and stereotypes.
  • Common patterns in various stories.
    Hint: Try to invent a new fairy tale with the discovered stereotypes and patterns. We did this once with our 6yo - the results were hilarious yet could have been in any random book of fairy tales.
  • Historic context - like why were there so many stepparents and how was life at the time these fairy tales came up.
    Example: Cinderella: The stepmother tries to strengthen the position of her own daughters in a time where marriage was the only way to secure the future of a girl. The father most likely didn't marry for love, but because he needed someone to keep the house and look after the first child. Marriages were a partnership of convenience and an economic decision, not a romantic concept. (Do you see another lesson here?)
  • Discuss which messages can be applied to modern times and what should be discarded. (see example above...)

Of course, you can't do this simply in one big lesson, but asking questions that lead a child to think about these topics can be done "in passing".

So back to your original questions:

  1. Telling a child that a fairy tale has multiple layers of meaning is a good thing to do. These stories were not intended as simple entertainment alone. Besides, at ten, he either has noticed that Cinderella has a deeper meaning (unless we are talking about the Disney all-singing-all-dancing glitter-laden version, then I recommend reading the Brothers Grimm) or will understand your explanation quickly. My children both stumbled about this at around five or six and we have continued from there.
  2. Discussing the possible interpretations is the logical next step. And this leads to the last bullet point from the list above: Does the given role model still make sense today? But don't go into too much detail - this is neither the place nor the time to explain the patterns of abusive relationships(1).

One last point about your personal conclusion that Cinderella will resent her father and thus resent her chivalrous Prince Charming: Perhaps she will be simply grateful for the chance to have a better and safer life that she won't make him miserable? Perhaps she is simply one of these ever-suffering ever compliant females that will submit to his wishes like she did to her step-mother's before? We can't say because the fairy tale doesn't tell us. Why not stick with the reassuring "And they lived happily ever after." that tells us that all conflict has been resolved at the end? (In fact, an important message of fairy tales...)

So no. Do not push your fears of your son picking the wrong woman in perhaps ten years into one simple fairy tale today. Criticizing the behaviour that is explicitly in the story is fine, too many what ifs is IMHO the wrong way to go. I'm sure that the pattern of women that your son will be drawn towards is formed by many, many females he meets or reads about, not just by one fictional character.

(1) IMHO, taking about relationships that are as unbalanced or broken as in your example can wait at least another five years or more. I'm sure there will be some kind of literary or movie (hopefully not real-life) example that may trigger this discussion...

  • 3
    +1 right, particularly for taking the story in its historical context, the Grimms, Perrault, etc. It might be fun to compare / contrast the way parents are treated in other fairy tales e.g. Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel, and even consider more modern stories such as Star Wars (mum is dead, dad is evil) and Harry Potter (parents perfect but dead). E.g. which is the worse parent, Cinderella's father, H&G's father, or Darth Vader?
    – A E
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 11:30
  • 4
    @AE: And of course never forget James Thurber for his take on Little Red Ridinghood for a herioine that doesn't need rescuing ;-)
    – Stephie
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 11:43
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    Interestingly, a recent movie showed that for Hänsel and Gretel all was not what it seemed, and the father took them to the safest place he could think off instead of their home, where mother and father were killed by a lynch mob. And sorry, but Harry Potter's father was far from perfect, but quite a bully towards a shy boy who turned out to be one of the greatest heroes in the book series.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 12:16
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    @gnasher729, I didn't make it to the end of the HP series so I'll have to take your word for that. Stephie, also Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes e.g. Little Red Riding Hood: "The small girl smiles / Her eyelid flickers / She whips a pistol from her knickers / She aims it at the creature's head and BANG! BANG! BANG! she shoots him ... dead." Could also be very interesting to read Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen and talk about how Frozen differs from it, why Disney made the changes they did, and how different (or not) Disney's recent Cinderella movie is to their 1950 version.
    – A E
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 14:01
  • 5
    @AE: But that would mean I have to shell out 15 bucks to watch a movie where just the trailer makes my toenails curl.... No, watch "Three Nuts for Cinderella" for a Cinderella that can hold her own. That's the Cinderella I'd love to see my daughter grow into if she insisted to become Cinderella. ;-) Let's hope the newly restored version has an English dub instead of only German and Czech!
    – Stephie
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 15:25

Is there any possible harm, if I tell my kid now about the hidden meaning of Cinderella?

To a certain extent the "hidden meaning" you describe is a somewhat dystopian outlook on relationships.

In general, it's considered unnecessary that a 10-year-old know the "cold hard truth" about everything.

I don't think most people make decisions in their adult life based on fairy tales they liked when they were 10.

It would seem prudent to wait until your son is actually at the age of forming adult relationships, and, if it turns out he's the nice guy chasing a lot of Cinderellas who would rather date a jerk, maybe have a talk with him at that point.

  • 2
    Thanks. At what age do you think a conversation about broken relationships a) won't harm the child's psyche and b) will be useful for him? Regarding "useful": When a man seriously falls in love with someone, no rational argument will convince him to break up.
    – user14348
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 10:55
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    Personally I have modeled my life around Star Wars.
    – Jay
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 20:06
  • 3
    @DmitriPisarenko I think it depends too much on the individual to be able to meaningfully give a certain age. A conversation about broken relationships might be appropriate when he starts dating. You're probably a little excessively concerned about getting the advice in early -- consider that on the whole it's an extremely rare occurrence for a person's whole life to be wrecked by their first romance.
    – Atsby
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 22:32
  • @Atsby - I have 2 words for you: "Romeo" and "Juliet" :)
    – user3143
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 18:35

There potentially could be harmful outcomes of going into detail that is ahead of a ten-year-old's comprehension/experience/understanding:

At that age, children are still children, and despite the media trying to persuade us otherwise, the world is a very safe place for the majority of people, and relationships, while rarely perfect are generally positive.

I'd definitely err on the side of helping children have a positive and optimistic view of the world - that helps build their ability to enter relationships in the future on a positive basis. They could have a very negative approach to relationships otherwise.

Sure, some relationships will fail, for various reasons, including some individuals who are really not pleasant, but that's just part of living.

Most traditional fairly tales have a combination of altruistic and good characters and malicious and evil characters, and kids pick up the nuances as they get older. At first they see the simple good and evil, and later they pick up on the subtle and more complex back stories.

  • And it's exactly the black/white good/evil equilibrium that makes fairy tales so attractive to children. (OK, bad wolves that get their just punishment helps, too...;-))
    – Stephie
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 7:37
  • 2
    Huh, I always tried to teach my children that the world is out to get them and the only rational response is to hide in the basement, cowering in fear. And have a shotgun handy to shoot anything that moves. :-)
    – Jay
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 20:23
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    Lol - thankfully I have not had to live anywhere where that is true.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 20:24

I don't know your son, but I think if you started in on this kind of analysis of a fairy tale with him, within about 30 seconds he'd be saying, "Dad, can I go watch TV now?"

I had plenty of times with my kids when we'd watch a cartoon or read a book and I'd make some comment about implications or interpretation that resemble the sort of things you say here. Like be watching a cartoon and say, "Wow, he's supposed to be the good guy and he's lying and tricking everyone around him?" My daughter once commented that the conversations we have about TV shows and movies are often more interesting than the movies -- or at least funnier.

Watching TV or reading a book together can be an excellent opportunity for such conversations. You can toss in a casual comment to the effect of, "Well, I doubt it would have worked out that way in real life." Make your point and then get back to the story so it's not a tedious lecture. I think there's a distinct advantage to using fictional characters for life lessons: you don't have to speak ill of any real people. If you say, "Yes, your mother gets totally irrational sometimes and I just don't know how to deal with her", well, there's a problem there. But, "Wow, the mother on this TV show is being totally irrational", now you're not attacking a real person that the child knows.

That said, how far you go in social or literary analysis depends on the maturity and interests of the child. I think your analysis here is a little over the top for a 10 year old. As someone else on here said, a little pessimistic too. Surely not every person who has a bad childhood ends up scarred for life and an emotional cripple.

I think the ideal would be that when your son gets close to the age where he will begin dating, that you make casual comments about the sort of things he should look for in a girlfriend. Don't give a lecture about all the psycho women who ruined your life. Just find an opportunity to toss in, "You know, if you meet someone with emotional problems, don't be so sure that you can fix them." If he responds and wants to pursue the conversation, great. If not, let it drop. Lecturing your children on your philosophy of life is only effective when it's done in the right way and at the right moment.

  • 1
    "Don't give a lecture about all the psycho women who ruined your life" - that's easy to fix. Just absolutely prohibit him from dating non-psycho women. Either he will (as any sane teenager) date non-psychos on principle; or he will listen to you, date a couple of psychos, get that experience out of his system early; or if he's really smart, will ask you why you're giving such a weird advice, which nicely seguays into sharing your experiences with him at HIS prompting.
    – user3143
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 18:31
  • After many years of experience, I've come to the conclusion that maybe psych wards are NOT the best place to go to meet women. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
    – Jay
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 14:44

Personally, the best I've seen is to ask question. This process can also be done after the kid see a t.v. show or a movie. Even after playing in the playground.

  • What did you think about this person?
  • Do you think that person was mean when they did this?
  • Why do you think they did that?
  • What would you do if it happen to you?

It also makes it more engaging and fun than hearing an adult give a sermon. It'll also help his meta-thinking capability.

Make sure to actively listen and don't juge to much his thought, let him express himself. The goal is, after a while, to let him figure it out by himself.

  • @Pharap you have to really be curious and in a conversation, kids love to talk about the things they like or are curious about.
    – the_lotus
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 1:21
  • After seeing this again I think I was a bit hasty with my comment the first time. I'm going to +1 because I think this bit is incredibly important and should be in bold: "Make sure to actively listen and don't judge to much his thought, let him express himself. The goal is, after a while, to let him figure it out by himself."
    – Pharap
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 5:24

Children need fairy tales. They need simple moral instructions that convey the advantages of moral behavior in ways that are meaningful to them. They deal with universal problems that preoccupy children's minds, and for this reason are interesting to them (and adults as well).

Fairy tales teach that if one does not shy away from, but instead meets steadfastly unexpected - and often unjust - hardships, one masters all obstacles and emerges victorious in the end. That’s one reason they often start with the death of a parent or some other existential dilemma. A complicated reading should just be confusing.

Fairy tales are little morality plays, not terribly different than Shakespeare's works in principle but very different in depth of understanding of human nature. Most people wouldn't dream of reading and explaining a Shakespeare play (which really delves into psychology and deeper meanings) to a 10-year-old child.

Your son can't deal with your interpretation of Cinderella, because he doesn't have the wisdom to understand it. What you would be doing is trying to dump many years of life experience onto a poor child.

he may get the wrong impression that it is easy to be together with a real-life Cinderella, i. e. that you can improve the life of a "broken" woman without investing enormous amount of time, energy, love, money and sometimes major sacrifices in lost career/business opportunities. A real-life Prince Charming would need - besides a genuine love to Cinderella, which borders on insanity - a couple of decades of intensive work to heal Cinderella's wounds (based on my experience).

To use myths as an example (also incredibly valuable tools for kids), unlike Athena, the goddess of wisdom who bursts forth fully formed and adult from her father Zeus' head, wisdom for most of us comes only with long years of introspection. Many parents want their children's minds to work like their own does; they want them to bypass those daily struggles and growth experiences and just be wise. It's a fruitless exercise.

Read him fairy tales. They are valuable. There's a reason right now that he's attracted to Cinderella that you, most likely, cannot understand because you don't understand the world the way your son does.


Can there be any harm to my son in

  • telling him that there are many ways to look at that fairy tale and
  • explain to him, how I interpret it (and why I don't like it)

Yes. You will be robbing him of constructs that his 10 year old mind can benefit from.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim: A famous child psychologist explains how fairy tales educate, support, and liberate the emotions of children.

  • "one masters all obstacles and emerges victorious in the end" - depending which versions of the fairy tales you read, of course. But in most modern versions that's the role they serve. I do not know exactly the intended role of Grimms' fairy tales, but "preparation to suffer the worst" is a possibility. Commented May 13, 2015 at 21:50
  • I'm really surprised at "Most people wouldn't dream of reading and explaining a Shakespeare play (which really delves into psychology and deeper meanings) to a 10 year old child." Do 10-year-olds not do Shakespeare where you are? Our school's 10/11-year-olds always do. Midsummer Night's Dream to start with, usually.
    – A E
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 11:29
  • 1
    Do you have a citation for the first paragraph? I can see how fairy tales are one approach to this, but the necessity seems a stretch. Surely there are people (or whole societies?) who grew up without fairy tales and came out fine. Commented May 15, 2015 at 0:12
  • 1
    Do you have a citation for the last paragraph? "You will be robbing him of constructs that his 10 year old mind can benefit from" - is there research that explaining how things work in-depth robs them of the positive stuff that a fairy tale imparts?
    – user3143
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:37
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    Similar for "Your son can't deal with your interpretation of Cinderella, because he doesn't have the wisdom to understand it" - very strong statemnt, not backed up (my 8 year old can deal with such things, for example)
    – user3143
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:38

You could also treat this as a chance to understand literature. Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are medieval mutations of the ancient legend of Psyche and Cupid, in which the heroine (Psyche) has a much more active role. Cinderella's conflict with her step mother was a medieval update of Psyche's struggle against the jealous Venus to win the hand of Cupid (or Prince Charming, as Disney would have it).

Anyhow, I think many of these hidden meanings are modern reinterpretations that weren't in the original. If you haven't, I would encourage you to read the Brother's Grim version and then read Psyche and Cupid - it's a great story and puts the tale in a whole new light.

  • Also, "Till We Have Faces" by C.S. Lewis. It's a variation on the Psyche/Cupid myth, told from the viewpoint of an ugly older sister.
    – dmm
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 18:41

I'm not sure which Cinderella story you're referring to. In most of the common versions of the story the stepmother only started treating Cinderella badly after her father died.

I think you're seriously overthinking this. Don't bother mentioning anything about it. Your son will not use this story as a model for his life.

Having said that, there are certainly worse role models your son could adopt. For all his supposed faults, the prince is kind, gentle, and treats Cinderella well.

You don't need to worry too much about how women are going to treat your son. All that really matters is how he is going to treat them.


Dmitri, as long as you give him equal air time, mention a couple of positives that you find in the story, and make it clear that you are sharing your own subjective point of view, and that everybody is entitled to their own opinion, it is fine for you to share your view. In other words, make sure you're doing it in a respectful way, and don't hurt him. Make it clear that not everyone views the story the same way you do.

It is constructive for your child, for you to share your view in a respectful, gentle way. First, you'll be modeling critical reading. Second, you'll be modeling intellectual tolerance.

It would be completely different if you were talking about a three-year-old who derives a great deal of enjoyment and solace from believing in Tinkerbell, and you came along and said, "You know what? There is no Tinkerbell!" That would just be unnecessarily destructive.

I can remember reading a novel with my child when he was 10, and we would share with each other whenever one or both of us had noticed something in the novel that was totally unrealistic. At the end, my son said, "Well, I still think it's a good book, but the author was really off on some of the details!"

A younger child would probably have trouble with this sort of complex view.

Is a 10 old enough to start doing this kind of critical reading? What is a respectful way of sharing my own criticisms?

I hope you are aware of fractured fairy tales, which I think you would enjoy, and which would give you a point of entry to critical analysis of the traditional folk versions (A fractured fairy tale "is a fairy or other folk tale that has been modified in such a way as to make us laugh at an unexpected characterization, plot development or contrary point of view.") Here is an example.

You could even write your own, and invite your son to give you constructive feedback!


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