A cautionary tale is a story that is told to warn the audience of a specific danger. Cautionary tales are written to teach young children a lesson or a general moral issue.

Why do we tell cautionary tales for children?

Parents or relatives use cautionary tales to convince their children to follow certain rules or conform to a specific behavior. Using a story engages children, ensuring they absorb the lesson being taught. Cautionary tales have been used throughout history to protect children and are often passed down from generation to generation.

The lesson or moral taught in a cautionary tale can be life-saving or something more straightforward to get children to obey a specific rule. For example, a story in Der Struwwelpeter, a collection of cautionary tales written in German by Heinrich Hoffmann, aims to convince children not to suck their thumbs. The report states that a ‘great tall tailor’ will come and ‘cut their thumbs clean off’ if they’re seen to be sucking them. This is a perfect example of a cautionary tale being used to move children away from a simple bad habit like sucking their thumb.

However, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is also considered a cautionary tale, but the lesson it seeks to teach could be the difference between life and death. In the original telling of the story, both Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are eaten by the wolf and aren’t saved by the woodcutter. The moral of the story is – don’t speak to strangers.

Examples of famous cautionary tales for children

  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Der Struwwelpeter
  • King Midas
  • The Emporer’s New Clothes
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