#10 The Secret Power of Fairytales

Why is age five so special? And what is it about fairytales that makes them so compelling at that age? Few therapists are aware (and if you are, I’d love to hear about it) of an important event in cognitive development that takes place at about age five. I have alluded to it before, but thought it would be of interest to say more.

The Arc of Time

The secret is that at about 5 1/2, on average, children gain the ability to see life as extending far out in time. Up to that age, they are limited to the present. Perhaps some rote learning allows younger children to accept that Mom will “be back in a little while,” but understanding that their own life has a future requires a good deal more cognitive ability. When they finally achieve this milestone, problem solving changes dramatically.

Prior to age 5 and limited to the present, when children are feeling small or lacking in ability, they love to identify with or even imagine themselves as superheroes or other exalted figures. When confronted with limitations or fears, they are easily able to resort to denial. When they don’t want to let go and fall into sleep, they know how to ask for a drink of water. And they are capable of many techniques for putting pressure on grown-ups to fulfill needs for love and attention. What all these solutions have in common is that they are rooted in the present.


What is missing is the ability to generate hope by imagining a future solution to a problem of today. Without the concept of time future, this simply can’t be done. But when the child does acquire that ability, suddenly an entirely new and powerful world of solutions to problems opens up. The pain of whatever might be troubling today can largely be relieved by the thought that “someday I will…”


These lively children’s stories become passionately interesting to five-year-olds, who now have the  ability to understand “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after.” Within those stories, it is widely recognized that children find rich opportunities to explore and metabolize the problems that trouble them.

Optimal Development

Hopefully the child’s fantasies about the future will evolve and become more realistic over time. Fantasies of becoming a truck driver or jumping horses may continue to morph into embodiments more suited to the particular individual, family, and culture.

When it remains conscious, the plan not only evolves into life and career aspirations, it also becomes the source of energy to learn and accomplish. As it evolves, it becomes a major source of authentic and powerful motivation that can last throughout life.

A New Kind of Problem

On the other hand, the child’s newfound ability to plan for the future can also lead to trouble. When the plan is used for solving problems, especially major ones like a shortfall in basic emotional needs experienced in the mind as life-and-death, then the plan, itself, can run into trouble. What if the desires embodied in the child’s plan are not approved of by the conscience? Here are the consequences:

  1. The wishes embodied in the child’s plan are driven from consciousness, presumably in order to avoid shame or guilt.
  2. Out of consciousness they are no longer accessible for modification as the child grows older, and remain fixed in their childlike form.
  3. The drive to accomplish those plans remains strong and tends to find alternative, distorted outlets.
  4. The conscience, through shame and guilt, operates equally insistently to block implementation of the plan and its derivatives.
  5. Motivation to pursue aims that are approved by and consistent with the conscience is pale and weak.

Freud was not wrong when he suggested that the conscience, active since age three, could play a role in pathology. Even beyond its role in the complexities of the triangular relationship between child and parents, the conscience has an important role in clinical issues encountered today.

Career Motivation

One example of the conscience opposing buried plans is the problem commonly encountered in clinical work of the adult who can’t find his or her “passion.” As practicing therapists know all too well, many adults, especially young ones and those having midlife crises, have been influenced by the values internalized in their conscience. When career directions are limited due to avoidance of shame (that is by the conscience), the individual will show a lack energy and motivation and grind through life with neither satisfaction nor hope of something better.

The  spark we have for accomplishing, achieving in life, comes not from the conscience, but from a five-year-old plan formed years ago. If we are to help these patients regain their drive, we must discover the current state of their five-year-old plan. This will become the key to helping them rediscover their natural fire.

I often find myself exploring with patients their secret wishes and desires and working with them to match those to current opportunities. One patient had ideas of being an author, then discovered that writing represented the desire of her father, not hers. But she had another interest, ready to blossom, and that was the one to pursue.

The Healthy Oedipus Complex

One way to make sense of Freud’s concept of the oedipus complex is through the interplay between the child’s life plan and the conscience. Returning to optimal development, the conscience internalizes appropriate prohibitions, such as the incest taboo, against having a sexual interest in the parent of the opposite sex (See last week’s TIFT on the conscience). Then there is no shame and no conflict with regard to the child’s life plan. The plan remains conscious and evolves over time into life goals and directions.

The Guilty Quest

Oedipal problems really do crop up in clinical work. I’ll talk more about them in a later post, but the essence is that when the five year old plan is shaped to solve a problem such as feelings of lack of warmth and attention from the parent of the opposite sex, the plan may seek the derivative or substitute of physical contact. When the child’s plan goes against the values and prohibitions of the conscience, then the five consequences listed above come into play. 

The plan is not abandoned, but takes on a life of its own, seeking satisfaction, but with the threat of shame leading to compromises and distortions in how it is manifested. The high energy drive to put the plan into action runs into the equally powerful anticipation of shame and guilt. 

Clinically the results are twofold. One is inhibition applying specifically and rather narrowly to those things that are most passionately important to the adult patient. The other is that the wish gets loose in some form that causes trouble in itself. So next time you see an accomplished and successful adult who just can’t seem to reach his or her most desired goal, or who acts out in ways that don’t make sense, think about a fairytale wish held captive somewhere outside of consciousness and heavily disguised due to shame and guilt.

Jeffery Smith MD

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