Is this terrifying tale too much for a six year old?

19th March 2014
Is this terrifying tale too much for a six year old?

My six-year-old son recently greeted both his grannies by peering intently into their eyes for some time, before declaring confidently that they weren't witches. He was looking for dancing flames in the pupils of their eyes apparently - and if you're confused you can't have read Roald Dahl's The Witches.

We're half-way through it at the moment and he's gripped, begging me to read one more chapter each night and flicking through the book on his own trying to work out what's coming up next. My older son finds this book quite terrifying and shoots out of the room when I start reading - and I don't blame him.

It is scary. The witches aren't far-fetched characters in black hats on broom sticks but smiling grannies who you might encounter on any street. They have long talons (disguised by gloves), bald and scabby heads (disguised by a wig), square feet with no toes (disguised by shoes they hobble in) and flames dancing in their eyes. In a particularly gruesome twist, they have the power to transform children into creatures such as slugs, which their parents will step on or poison, or pheasants which they shoot and EAT.

I did wonder if this was appropriate material for a six year-old and made a point of telling him that of course witches aren't real, it's just a story etc - and to please stop staring into Granny's eyes. It's disconcerting for her.

But at the same time I'm delighted he's so engaged in a book and also reassured by all the psycho-babble around reading scary books to children. Apparently fairy tales in particular serve an important purpose. Rather than instilling fears in children they help children face the fears they have and vanquish them. They link with well-known developmental stages such as the fear of abandonment or fear of strangers by telling a story which brings those fears to life but in which good ultimately triumphs.

In The Witches, evil is indeed vanquished. All the witches turn into mice and are set upon by ravenous cats (sorry for the plot spoiler!). And I'm going to vanquish my own anxieties about the scary nature of this book - happy that he's getting a thrill from a book (while possibly addressing his own worries) in the safety of his Mum's lap!

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