We have a CD in our car, that my five-year-old requests over and over again. It’s a series of fairy-tales, and we’ve listened to them so often now that I’m getting pretty good at telling them myself – accents included.
They’ve created some fun conversation about who is ‘good’, and who is ‘bad’, what princesses do, what counts as good parenting, when stealing is justified or quite what ‘seven-league boots’ are. But one has been really playing on my mind. I vaguely recalled the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s been instructive to hear it properly.
A little girl goes to visit her sick grandmother and after saying hello to a woodsman also meets a wolf and tells him about her plans. The wolf says he’ll go to pay the old lady a visit as well, and they agree to meet at the cottage. Once the wolf has sent Red Riding Hood the long way around, he heads to the cottage, eats the old lady, gets into her bed and waits for the little girl. She’s unceremoniously eaten too (after all the ‘What big eyes you have!’ etc.), but then the woodsman appears and manages to rescue both the girl and the old woman from the wolf’s body while he sleeps.
So far so familiar – but it’s the ending that’s been bothering me. After the joy and laughter of the rescue, the narrator concludes the story:
“So Little Red Riding Hood said she would never pick flowers in the wood again – and she would never speak to a wolf…
…And do you know? She never did.”
Puzzled, I stopped the CD and said to my daughter “That doesn’t seem fair. Why shouldn’t Little Red Riding Hood pick flowers in the woods?”
She seemed to be listening, so I continued.
“Whose job is it to keep the woods safe?”
A pause – she didn’t know.
I realised I didn’t know. Maybe it was no one’s job. But, in the absence of any clear accountability, I suggested the woodsman. She agreed. After all, he had the word ‘wood’ in his name, and he was not a little girl, so he could probably shoulder the burden a little. ‘Are all wolves bad?’ I asked. She thought about it.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked.
Another pause. ‘Well, this one was wicked’. True, true. Probably best not to open up a conversation about whether wolves can change. ‘Maybe this one was pretty wicked, but perhaps others aren’t so bad?’ We carried on throwing ideas around a bit and concluded that our preferred ending would be “So the woodsman kept the wood safe for Little Red Riding Hood, so she could pick flowers, and she made sure not to speak to wolves without her Mummy or Daddy there”. A compromise of sorts.
I could only come to this alternative ending through my own slow education that it is not children and young people’s responsibility to keep themselves safe. Within FACES, this is something we believe, and will continue to say. There will always be the need to give teenagers guidelines about behaviour and sound advice for their own safety. That’s the good work of much prevention and awareness raising about online safety for example. But this is a world where it’s our job – yours and mine – to make their world safer. In that world, Little Red Riding Hood carries on picking flowers, and our young people are able to be online, walk through the school corridors and hang out at the Mall, without fear for their safety.
For more information about this way of thinking, read up on Contextual Safeguarding – an approach developed by Dr Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire. The team is supporting local authorities, schools, park wardens, McDonald’s staff, bus drivers, community leaders, anyone and everyone, to do their bit to protect young people in the spaces they hang out.
Within FACEs we are passionate about making our faith communities spaces where they are safe, and safe to speak about their experiences, and to use our power as communities to advocate for that safety – wherever they are.
These fairy tales aren’t going anywhere – but with a little conversation we can always re-write them.
Dr Lucie Shuker, Director of Research at Youthscape, FACES member