How to banish Grandma-bashing in fairy tales


There’s a wealth of modern literature that today’s parents and grandparents can share with the children in their lives. These stories are uplifting and colorfully illustrated, often with a moral or life lesson tucked in.

But if you’re ever tempted to read the classic old fairy tales or nursery rhymes to your kids or grandkids, beware. Abandonment, neglect, even murder – these bedtime stories are terrifying. Also, parents and grandparents look particularly bad in many of them.

Sometimes the mother is dead at the outset of the tale (Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast) and the father, if there is one, is spineless and easily manipulated by an evil second wife.

Meanwhile, grandmothers are portrayed as old and weak. And I suspect the witches in many of these tales are really grandmas who’re overwhelmed by boisterous children they can’t discipline because they don’t want to get crosswise with the parents.

How about we give everyone a break by bringing a few of these twisted tales into the 21st century?

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

In the original, the old woman has “so many children, she doesn’t know what to do” so she beats them all soundly and sends them to bed without supper. Horrible parenting, yes. But clearly, she’s at her wit’s end. And who’s to say the story hasn’t been exaggerated? What if she served them a nice economical supper of broccoli and beans, and they simply refused to eat it?

Here’s my version: the old woman, who runs a daycare for her grandchildren and other kids of working parents, realizes one day that she’s been living in a vintage Nike. So she flips it – replaces the sole with an updated material and buys new laces. She puts the renovated shoe on the market and it sells right away to an NBA basketball star who loves its generous square “footage.”

The woman (must we keep calling her old?) takes her windfall and builds a giant estate (in the shape of a house, not a shoe), with plenty of room for all of the children she cares for. Once she hires some household help she’s in a much better mood, and becomes known for the lavish suppers she serves her charges. Mandatory nap times become a thing of the past and she allows her well-fed children to substitute creative play for mid-day sleep.

Little Red Riding Hood

In this classic, the grandmother is dispatched early on, eaten by a wolf while Red is picking flowers and dawdling instead of delivering her basket of food. Apparently Grandma was too weak to put up much of a fight. And the little girl didn’t see much difference between her grandmother and the hairy wolf impersonator. All it took to fool Red was a lace cap.

In my version, the wolf knocks on the door of grandma’s cottage, but instead of getting passively eaten grandma uses her kick-boxing training to beat the crap out of him till he skulks away. When the girl gets there, her grandmother scolds her soundly for being so gullible, and they spend the rest of morning together going over how to act when confronted by wolves and other types of Stranger Danger. Grandma also teaches her granddaughter some basic self-defense moves.

Hansel and Gretel

Here’s a more believable tale: Hansel and Gretel are pint-sized terrors who drive their poor parents crazy with their wild behavior. When these unruly kids stumble upon a kindly old woman’s candy-bedecked cottage in the forest, they immediately begin snacking on it without waiting for permission.

Soon the children are on a wild sugar high, and they break into the woman’s house and find all sorts of goodies – spun-sugar “gems” and fondant “pearls” – which they also stuff into their mouths. By the time their parents find them, the children are doubled over with stomach aches and they’ve wreaked major property damage.

The old woman is irate and demands the children rebuild her cottage. The chagrined parents agree. So every day after school, Hansel and Gretel trek to the forest to work on home repairs, baking fresh sheets of gingerbread siding and whipping up batches of sugar plaster to reattach the gumdrop and candy cane trim.

The children aren’t allowed to eat any of the building materials, so they call the woman a mean old witch and concoct a story about her trying to bake them in an oven to eat them. That’s a whopping lie —the old woman’s really a vegetarian with a major sweet tooth. But like the shredded coconut thatch on the cottage roof the story sticks, passed on by word of mouth till the Brothers Grimm finally publish it.

There you have it, three classic tales modernized. These stories may not be as dramatic, but at least the grandmothers aren’t weak, evil or cruel.

And that should help everybody sleep better at night.


Image: Wikimedia Commons