Lessons from Disney and 19th-Century Fairy Tales

While I will leave movie reviewing to my capable friend, Bill Hanna, I am compelled to recommend that you go see “Frozen.” The movie truly transported me from the stirring stress of the season to a joyful romp in a winter wonderland. It helped that the theater had no heat at first, leaving my husband to wonder if the cold was supposed to be part of the experience.

Disney’s “Frozen” is the story of a young girl’s perseverance, but aren’t they all? Of course, her parents die before the first song ends. This is not a spoiler alert by any means. Anyone paying attention would expect nothing less. You will be hard-pressed to find a Disney hero(ine) who sets out on the formulaic journey and still has both loving and supportive parents.

Why must the Disney blueprint begin with the loss of a parent or two? In all fairness, the blame does not fall on Disney alone considering many of these movies are loosely based on 19th-century fairy tales. “Frozen” is no different as it has elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

In the 19th century, it was more common for a mother to die in childbirth or for a father to be absent in the rearing of children, so we can explain away this plotline by taking a historical perspective. We also can simplify the archetype to say the creator needs to efficiently bond us to the hero(ine), and the early loss of a parent makes us sympathize with the character and hook us into the journey from the beginning.

Still, my years as a humanities teacher keep leading me back to the works of the influential mythology professor Joseph Campbell, author of “A Hero with a Thousand Faces.” If we concede his premise of the commonality of the hero’s journey – the story arc of all of these fairy tales – then these stories are a glimpse into our shared experience. The fairy tale, and Disney’s modern-day adaptation, is a thread woven through all our lives. The path of the hero is so common because the transformation from darkness to growth lives within each of us.

Though we might not wander alone in the woods, we all experience the likes of darkness. For true personal growth, a nurturing parent cannot accompany the child into the forest deep. The problem solving, the independence, the perseverance would all be spoiled by such a loving presence. The true grit of the character to face not only the elements, but also sorcery, loneliness, deceit, etc. leads to growth or, in more simplistic terms, happily ever after.

Some parents choose not to read fairy tales to their children or stray from the Disney princess formula. Some claim the model is too frightening for young children. Allow me to suggest that it is too frightening for us parents as well. After all, a close reading of any of these tales makes it clear that our children need us to teach them life lessons, love them enough to foster courage and let them, as children, experience “the woods” alone. How different the story of “Frozen” would be with the modern idea of a “snowplow” parent clearing the way for Anna.

Perhaps the authors of the fairy tales and the creators at Disney have been sending us a message about which we are only now writing in education circles: Grit, which is a key element necessary for (and the best predictor of) success in a child’s school and life requires the absence of constant parental problem solving. All other indicators including natural talent and IQ scores pale in comparison to a child’s penchant for learning and his positive response to failure.

Maybe, Disney is giving us a glimpse into our collective soul, reminding us that every story of growth requires darkness and the independence to respond well. As parents, we have to get out of the way and let Anna – or Snow White, Nemo, Belle … or Grace and Ella – develop the grit to ultimately face the dragon and save their own day every once in awhile. No matter how scary that may be … for us parents.

– Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 and 9.