Rapunzel’s Lesson: The Failure of Overprotection

I’ve written before about my belief that fantasy stories are not fluff but important literature, teaching us life lessons as they entertain us. The same holds true for fairy tales, especially the classic ones that have been around for centuries. Take Rapunzel, the story of the long-haired girl in the tower. While this story is fabulous in nearly every way, it is also teaches us a real-life lesson about how overprotection can fail.

The version of the story recorded by the Grimm brothers in the 1800s tells us that at the age of twelve, beautiful Rapunzel is locked in a tower by the witch who raised her from birth. No one knows where she is but the witch, and the only way into the tower is through a window at the top. The witch climbs up Rapunzel’s long braid when she visits the girl.

Rapunzel’s tower. Watercolor painting by Kit Dunsmore

What is this really about? What reason could the witch have for locking her adopted daughter in a tower? The Grimms’ version only hints at the witch’s motivation. The telling detail is Rapunzel’s age. At twelve, she will soon be a woman. Locking Rapunzel in the tower was an attempt to protect her physically and sexually, an attempt to keep her from growing up.

As these things usually do, the witch’s plan backfires. Not only does a prince find the tower and visit Rapunzel himself, but he talks of marrying her and she winds up pregnant. This is an anxious parent’s nightmare and not at all what the witch had in mind.

Rapunzel’s story is a metaphor for all kinds of overprotection. In trying to shield someone from something, we may be generating the conditions that make our loved one vulnerable. A growing girl who is isolated from her peers or kept from dating can’t learn what she needs to know about relationships or discernment or sex. She has no experience of her own to help her make good choices.

Rapunzel. Paper clay, paint. Statue by Kit Dunsmore

Unfortunately, we have to make some mistakes in life in order to learn how to navigate the world. Being locked away from everyone and everything makes us more likely to be a victim, not less. The witch’s dilemma is a dilemma faced by every parent. How can I help my child be safe? How can I keep them from being hurt?

The answer is that we can’t keep our children from harm, not and expect them to be effective and self-reliant. Watching those younger than we are charge into situations we see as disastrous is hard. The fact is that no matter how much we try to warn or protect them, they must learn these things for themselves.

In the end, Rapunzel finds her way despite the witch, who banishes her to the wilderness when she discovers the girl is pregnant. Rapunzel has twins, a boy and a girl, and is raising them when she meets the prince again. The prince has been wandering, blinded by briers after the witch threw him out the tower window. Rapunzel’s tears of sympathy heal his damaged eyes. They return to his home, marry, and live happily ever after.

While her life is challenging because of the witch’s extreme attempts at protection, Rapunzel still makes a good life for herself. She overcomes the disadvantages of overprotection and finds her happy ending. Her story teachs us that overprotection doesn’t work, but it can be overcome.

What lesson have you learned from Rapunzel?

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