Once upon a time, there was a boy who cried wolf

Fairy tales – and the lessons they teach – are as crucial for children today as they ever were

I see spoilsport-at-large Richard Dawkins was at it again, this time saying modern kids don't need fairy tales.

While conceding that fairy tales aren’t actually dangerous, the scientist says we should foster a spirit of scepticism in children rather than indulge their fantasies. Old yarns have worrying doses of supernaturalism, it seems, with “statistically too improbable” twists such as a prince turning into a frog.

Nonsense. Kids have always needed "statistically too improbable" stories to help them make sense of their world. Fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel help children, in a roundabout way, confront the terrors of being small and vulnerable. How would kids survive if they were abandoned by their parents? What would they eat? What if someone who pretended to help really planned to kill them?

True, the literal meaning of some fairy tales can leave today’s pseudo-sophisticated sprogs cold. “How could Red Riding Hood mix up her grandmother with a wolf?” sneered my nine-year-old. “How stupid was she? A wolf looks nothing like a grandmother.”

Fair point. But the essential lesson of Red Riding Hood – that things are not always as they seem, and that someone pretending to be trustworthy may in fact be nasty – is as crucial for today's youngsters as it was for their ancestors, who really did live in a world filled with hungry wolves.

And if the old tales don’t quite fit the bill, our kids create their own, more up-to-date versions.

A recent source of inspiration was wild claims that a children’s app, of all things, was not what it seemed. The app, which kids could download on to their phones, features a cute cat that repeats the user’s words in a funny voice. How sweet and fun is that? Then bizarre rumours swept the internet that the app was a trick to bring kids into contact with paedophiles. After about five minutes of concerned parent research, I was satisfied that the rumours were rubbish.

It’s the same sort of the scare that popped up in my youth, when a record player was cutting-edge technology. We breathlessly spread the word that if you took the theme song of a TV show about a talking horse and played it backwards, you’d hear a message from the devil.

Ridiculous, but thrilling at the same time. And impossible to disprove, seeing as none of us could play a song backwards.

Fast forward to 2014, and far more interesting than the cat app-paedo link hysteria were the stories inspired by it, created by kids themselves.

Among a very small group of friends aged eight and nine, the following tall tales were swapped:

1. One boy received a text from the cat, asking for his name and address. He responded that he was called Prince William and lived in Buckingham Palace.

2. One boy looked into the cat’s eye and saw a human skull.

3. One boy heard the cat threaten, “I’m going to get you in your sleep.”

4. One girl opened her front door and the cat was there, demanding to come in. And it was a giant.

Statistically too improbable? My cynical daughter was fairly sure the one about the app cat appearing on the girl’s doorstep was a lie. But not completely sure.

Adults smile, of course, but we’re irrelevant here. This is kids’ business.

They revel in supernatural threats, upping the ante, telling and retelling their own versions, scaring each other silly – which wouldn’t happen if these self-generated fairy tales didn’t touch something deep inside.

Okay, so Red Riding Hood seems a right eejit for thinking a wolf was her granny. But what if something boring and everyday, such as a cat, aims to get you in your sleep? How can you tell?

It’s the same dilemma faced by Red Riding Hood: something that seems safe and lovable may actually be out to hurt you.

Who doesn’t need to learn this? If adults were better at absorbing it, we’d live in a world without used-car scams and pension rip-offs.

As for Dawkins, he needs to brush up on the story about the boy who cried wolf. You know, the one about the blowhard who kept warning about dangers that didn’t exist – until people stopped listening. Mary Feely is a freelance writer