An examination of specific values contained in children’s literature and children’s reactions to those values is important and timely, given the current emphasis on literature-based reading instruction. This study investigated the reactions of children to the values of forgiveness versus retribution in the two main versions of Cinderella, Perrault’s and Grimm’s. In Perrault’s version, Cinderella, who was “as good as she was beautiful,” forgave her stepsisters and found lords of the court for them to marry on the same day as her wedding. In Grimm’s version, the stepsisters had their eyes pecked out by birds on Cinderella’s wedding day, so they were punished by blindness for their wickedness.
Much has been written about children’s literature, including Cinderella, from all sorts of perspectives, but relatively little data-based research has been done. Besides case studies, the children’s literature research that exists tends to be scattered throughout a variety of disciplines (Short, 1995). There are some relevant studies of forgiveness and retribution in the psychological, sociological, and theological literature. Children’s reactions to dilemmas involving retribution have been looked at in terms of Kohlberg’s levels of moral development (Cortese, 1982), and Percival and Haviland (1978), using Piagetian stories, found that when stories contained bad behavior, children tended to view subsequent negative happenings as being cause/effect retribution. Darby and Schlenker (1982) found that children were more forgiving when apologies were more elaborate. Grueneich and Trabasso (1981) discussed children’s comprehension of motives and consequences in stories, but in their review of research concerning moral judgment of stories, they found serious methodological problems. Schwartz (1978) wrote about retribution and forgiveness in terms of sociological implications. Johnson (1986) formulated a model of forgiveness, but found little empirical research in relevant work. Enright and his colleagues described forgiveness according to developmental stages, provided a thorough summary and analysis of the literature, and described forgiveness education (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995; Enright, Gassin, & Wu, 1992; Enright and the Human Development Study Group, 1991). Some age differences have been found: four-year-olds enjoyed hearing cruel retaliatory acts in a fairy tale, while seven- and eight-year-olds enjoyed equitable retaliation the most (Zillmann & Bryant, 1975). Additionally, the range of interpretations of Cinderella is wide, from Bettelheim’s (1976) Freudian interpretations, to the Ulanovs’ (1983) view of Cinderella as the suffering servant, or female Christ figure.
An examination of the reactions of children in different kinds of school settings (public, Catholic, Christian, and home schools) to the values of forgiveness versus retribution in the popular fairy tale seemed promising because Christian and Catholic schools place an emphasis on teaching forgiveness to their pupils. Since many home school parents teach their children at home because of the issue of values in the schools (Mayberry, 1988; Van Galen, 1988), the inclusion of home school children in this study seemed pertinent. The overwhelming majority of home school parents identify themselves as observant Christians, and curriculum guides used by many home schoolers make a point of teaching forgiveness.
The expectation was that children from Christian, Catholic, and home schools would prefer Perrault’s forgiveness ending more than public school children. We also expected that the reasons given for preferring the forgiveness ending would vary according to school type, with Christian, Catholic, and home school children giving more altruistic or religiously based reasons than public school children. We suspected that suburban and rural children would prefer the forgiveness ending more than city children, and that females would prefer the forgiveness ending more than males. We were curious whether children would choose to read the forgiveness or retribution ending to young sisters or brothers and whether their choices would correspond to their own preferences for the forgiveness or retribution ending for themselves. We were also curious whether children’s previous knowledge of the endings would influence their choices.
Our expectations and questions were based primarily upon our observations of children’s classroom behavior. Our suspicion that suburban and rural children would prefer the forgiveness ending more than city children came from reading studies such as that of Garrod and Beal, 1993, who found that those from less affluent communities were more likely to focus on issues of rights and justice versus concern for others than those from more affluent communities.
Of the 626 fifth graders who served as participants, there were 576 from city, suburban, and rural areas in public, Catholic, and Christian schools (M = 285, F = 291) and 50 home school fifth graders (M = 25, F = 25). The children were from the midwest (primarily the Chicago area) and the state of Washington. Over 90% of the home school children came from families that were observant Christians. Additionally, for comparison purposes, there were 80 tenth and twelfth graders (M = 33, F = 47) from a city public school and 197 adults (33 males and 164 females who were graduate and undergraduate students in a city public university).
The children read a summary of the story of Cinderella up to the point where no one else’s foot fits into the glass slipper, but Cinderella’s foot does. They then read both of two very different endings for the story, Perrault’s forgiveness ending and Grimm’s retribution ending.
The children were asked whether they had heard or read each version before, which ending they preferred and why they preferred that ending, which ending they would read to a four-year-old sister (and why), and which ending they would read to a four-year-old brother (and why). They were also asked to write down any other known ending to the story.
The entire task of reading and writing was given in the children’s classrooms with their teachers present and took about 30 minutes. A few children needed and were given extra time to finish. The home school children worked individually in small groups.
Data were also collected from several other groups to compare differences in responses from the fifth graders, namely tenth- and twelfth-grade students and adults; all completed the task in their classrooms. The adults were asked which ending they would read to a four-year-old daughter and son instead of sister and brother.
After reading a summary of Cinderella without an ending, the children read the following page.
Here are two different endings:
Now her stepsisters recognized her. Cinderella was the beautiful person they had seen at the ball! They threw themselves at her feet and begged forgiveness for all their bad treatment of her. Cinderella asked them to rise, embraced them and told them she forgave them with all her heart. She begged them to love her always. Cinderella was conducted to the young prince. He found her lovelier than ever, and a few days afterwards, married her. Cinderella, who was as good as she was beautiful, gave her stepsisters a home at the palace and on the same day married them to two great lords of the court.
Have you heard or read Ending A. before? (Check one) Yes_____ No_____
Then the prince looked into her face and recognized the lovely maiden with whom he had danced. Startled and alarmed, the stepmother and stepsisters turned pale with anger. But the prince lifted Cinderella on to his horse and rode away with her. When they passed by a hazel tree, two white doves flew down and settled on Cinderella’s shoulders, one on the left and one on the right, and there they stayed. When the time came for the wedding, the two wicked stepsisters hoped to join in the merrymaking. In the procession to the church they walked on either side of the bride. But the dove on her right shoulder pecked out the left eye of the eldest, and the dove on her left shoulder pecked out the right eye of the youngest. And when the procession came out of the church, the stepsisters had changed places, and the dove on the bride’s right shoulder pecked out the left eye of the youngest and the dove on her left shoulder pecked out the right eye of the eldest. So for all their days they were punished with blindness on account of their wickedness and falsehood.
Have you heard or read Ending B. before? (Check one) Yes_____ No_____
The next page presented the following questions: “Which ending do you like better, A. or B.? (Check one)” “Why do you like that ending better?” “If you had a four-year-old sister and were going to read the story to her, which ending would you read? (Check one) Why?” “If you had a four-year-old brother and were going to read the story to him, which ending would you read? (Check one) Why?” “If you know some other ending for Cinderella, describe it.”
Three-way analyses of variance (gender x region x school type) were completed for each of the five variables (knowledge of each version of the story, child’s own ending preference, child’s ending preference for a four-year-old sister, and child’s ending preference for a four-year-old brother) for students within the three way design. Additional analyses of variance (2 way – gender x group) were completed to compare the home school children’s responses to those of the other children. (The home school group did not fit into the three-way design because there were few city home schoolers, reflecting national trends.) Post-hoc tests were completed using the Tukey a method. Correlation coefficients for the five variables were also computed.
Detailed content analyses were made for the children’s responses as to why they preferred either ending for themselves, for a four-year-old sister, and for a four-year-old brother.
Table 1 shows the fifth graders’ knowledge (%) of the two endings, and Table 2 shows the fifth graders’ preferences (%) for the two endings according to gender, region, and school type. Table 3 shows the preferences for Perrault’s (forgiveness) ending for each group.
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The three-way analyses of variance revealed significant differences for the following main effects: (a) region for the variable of the knowledge of the retribution ending (F (2,558) = 7.16, p < .001), with the city students knowing the retribution ending more frequently than the suburban students (Tukey a: p < .005) or the rural students (Tukey a: p < .05), (b) gender differences for the variable of the knowledge of the retribution ending (F, 1, 558) = 3.98, p < .05), with the males knowing the retribution ending more frequently than the females, (c) gender differences for the variable of the child’s own ending preference (F, 1, 558) = 15.82, p < .001), with the females preferring the forgiveness ending more frequently than the males, and (d) gender differences for the variable of which ending the child would read to a four-year-old sister (F, 1, 558) = 7.73, p < .01), with the females reading the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister more frequently than the males. There were no significant differences for the other main effects. For interaction effects, the following differences were significant: (a) region x school type for the knowledge of the forgiveness ending (F, 4, 558) = 3.41, p < .01), (b) gender x school type for the knowledge of the retribution ending (F, 2, 558) = 3.62, p < .05), and (c) region x gender for the child’s own ending preference (F, 2, 558) = 3.11, p < .05).
The two-way analyses of variance, in which the home school children were included, revealed significant differences for the following main effects: (a) group type for the variable of the knowledge of the forgiveness ending (F, 9,606) = 1.96, p < .05), (b) group type for the variable of the knowledge of the retribution ending (F, 9, 606) = 2.96, p < .005), (c) group type for the variable of which ending the child would read to a four-year-old sister (F, 9, 606) = 1.90, p < .05), (d) gender differences for the variable of the knowledge of the retribution ending (F, 1, 606) = 4.02, p < .05), with the males knowing the retribution ending more frequently than the females (M mean = .25; F mean = .19), (e) gender differences for the variable of the child’s own ending preference (F, 1, 606) = 20.37, p < .001), with the females preferring the forgiveness ending more frequently than the males (M mean = .51; F mean = .69), and f) gender differences for the variable of which ending the child would read to a four-year-old sister (F, 1, 606) = 8.66, p < .005), with the females reading the forgiveness ending more frequently than the males (M mean = .73; F mean = .83). There were no significant differences for the other main effects nor for any of the interactions.
Significant findings for post-hoc tests for all ten groups (Tukey a) at the .05 level were (a) for knowledge of the forgiveness ending, the suburban public mean (.54) was higher than the rural public mean (.22), (b) for knowledge of the retribution ending, the city public mean (.33), the city Catholic mean (.32), and the city Christian mean (.31) were all higher than the home school mean (.06), and (c) for the child’s choice of the forgiveness ending for a four-year-old sister, the home school mean (.94) was higher than the city public mean (.68).
— table is missing in this web page; the future plan is for it to be accessible in PDF format —
The correlation coefficients revealed significant correlations (p < .01) between (a) which ending the children knew and which ending they preferred for themselves, (b) which ending the children knew and which ending they would read to a four-year-old sister, and (c) which ending the children preferred for themselves and which ending they would read to a four-year-old sister. The other correlations were not significant.
The home school girls’ responses were the most extreme, followed by the rural Christian girls and the suburban Christian girls; 88% of the home school girls, 79% of the rural Christian girls, and 76% of the suburban Christian girls preferred the forgiveness ending for themselves; 100% of the home school girls, 97% of the rural Christian girls, and 88% of the suburban Christian girls would read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister; the only group that clearly preferred the forgiveness ending for a four-year-old brother was the home school girls (68%). Of the boys, the group that most preferred the forgiveness ending was the home school boys, but the differences from the other groups were small (see Table 3).
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Both boys and girls would read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister, but they tended to read the retribution ending to a four-year-old brother; the differences were large and consistent (see Table 3). The exception was the home school girls, who clearly preferred the forgiveness ending in all choices. We included questions about brother and sister choices in the task because we wanted to see whether boys would read their preferences to brothers and girls to sisters. We were surprised at the children’s differing choices for sisters and brothers.
Reasons for Preferences
Children’s reasons for preferring the forgiveness ending for themselves or for a four-year-old sister or brother varied from a bland “it’s nice” and “it sounds better” to responses such as “stepsisters asked for forgiveness,” “can be nice to people even if they aren’t nice to you,” and “it teaches about forgiveness.” Children’s reasons for preferring the retribution ending varied from “it sounds better,” “he/she would like it,” “more exciting,” “it’s more for boys,” “boys like violence” to responses such as “they got punished for being selfish,” and “stepsisters got what they deserved.”
Table 4 shows the percentage of forgiveness related reasons the children gave for choosing Ending A (Perrault’s) and the percentage of retribution related reasons for choosing Ending B (Grimm’s) according to gender, region, and school type. The forgiveness related reasons contained specific mention of forgiveness, compassion, or apologizing. The retribution related reasons contained specific mention of punishment, the most common response being “stepsisters got what they deserved.” The percentages are based upon the total number of children in each group. For example, 8% (24/285) of the total group of males and 16% (48/291) of the total group of females gave forgiveness related reasons for preferring Ending A for themselves. If, however, we look at the numbers in terms of how many children who preferred Ending A for themselves gave forgiveness related reasons, those percentages become 17% (24/145) for males and 25% (48/195) for females.
An examination of Table 4 reveals only minor variations in the percentages of forgiveness related and retribution related responses given by the different groups. When giving reasons why they preferred a specific ending for themselves, the children gave forgiveness related reasons much more than they did when asked about a sister or brother; the sister and brother reasons were much more stereotypically gender related. For a four-year-old sister, children’s reasons for choosing Ending A, other than the forgiveness related reasons and “she’d like it better,” were most often that it was less violent, nicer, had a happy ending, and they wouldn’t want to scare her with Ending B. For a four-year-old brother, children’s reasons for choosing Ending B, other than the retribution related reasons and “it’s more for boys,” were most often that boys like violence, aggression, scary stories, weird stories, mean endings, and “gross” and “sick things.”
— table is missing in this web page; the future plan is for it to be accessible in PDF format —
Overall, the children’s reasons varied very little whether they were in public, Catholic, Christian, or home schools and whether they were from city, suburban, or rural areas. A noteworthy finding was that for all the groups, for the children who preferred Ending B for themselves, almost half of the reasons given were retribution related (44% for public schools, 51% for Catholic schools, 44% for Christian schools, and 57% for home schools). The children who preferred Ending A for themselves gave a smaller number of forgiveness related reasons (16% for public schools, 20% for Catholic schools, 27% for Christian schools, and 22% for home schools).
Tenth and Twelfth Graders
Tenth- and twelfth-grade males preferred the retribution ending for themselves (73%) but would read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister (77%); for a four-year-old brother, 56% of the males would read the retribution ending. The females were split on personal preference but would overwhelmingly read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister (98%); for a four-year-old brother, 59% of the females would read the forgiveness ending. Only 11% of the students were familiar with the forgiveness ending, and only 16% were familiar with the retribution ending.
Reasons for preferring the forgiveness ending for themselves often specifically mentioned forgiveness; the other most common reasons given were that Ending A was a happy ending and that fairy tales should have happy endings. Reasons for choosing the forgiveness ending for a four-year-old sister were most often that it was happier, nicer, less violent, positive, kinder, and that Ending B would scare or upset her. Reasons for choosing the forgiveness ending for a four-year-old brother were the same as those given for a four-year-old sister.
Reasons for preferring the retribution ending for themselves were most often that the stepsisters got what they deserved, a response that was given by 60% of those who chose Ending B for themselves. There were few reasons given for choosing the retribution ending for a four-year-old sister; most often students said that it would teach her a lesson. Reasons for choosing the retribution ending for a four-year-old brother were most often that it was exciting, interesting, that he’d like it because of the violence and grossness, and that he would think it was funny.
For the 80 students, the percentage of forgiveness related reasons for preferring Ending A (Perrault’s) for themselves was 19%; for a four-year-old sister, 11%; and for a four-year-old brother, 5%. The percentage of retribution related reasons for preferring Ending B (Grimm’s) for themselves was 43%; for a four-year-old sister, 2%; and for a four-year-old brother, 9%. Of the students who preferred Ending A for themselves, 47% gave forgiveness related reasons, and of the students who preferred Ending B for themselves, 71% gave retribution related reasons.
Interestingly, the adults were inclined to read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old son (M = 73%, F = 85%) as well as to a four-year-old daughter (M = 85%, F = 92%). They preferred the forgiveness ending slightly less for themselves (M = 65%, F = 81%). Only 24% of the males and 35% of the females were familiar with the forgiveness ending, and only 3% of the males and 12% of the females were familiar with the retribution ending.
Reasons for preferring the forgiveness or retribution ending for themselves or for a four-year-old son or daughter were much more specifically forgiveness related or retribution related than any of the other groups.
For the 197 adults, the percentage of forgiveness related reasons for preferring Ending A (Perrault’s) for themselves was 44%; for a four-year-old daughter, 50%; and for a four-year-old son, 46%. The percentage of retribution related reasons for preferring Ending B (Grimm’s) for themselves was 15%; for a four-year-old daughter, 6%; and for a four-year-old son, 8%. Of the adults who preferred Ending A for themselves, 56% gave forgiveness related reasons, and of the adults who preferred Ending B for themselves, 69% gave retribution related reasons. A number of adults (12%) specifically mentioned that they would make no distinction between which ending to read to a four-year-old son or daughter based on gender.
Although there were minor variations in the responses of fifth graders from the different types of schools and regions, the differences we expected did not occur. However, a difference did occur: girls preferred the forgiveness ending for themselves more than boys did and for a four-year-old sister more than boys did. Perhaps girls are raised to be more forgiving than boys.
The fact that we did not find the differences we expected among the different kinds of schools may be looked at in several ways. For example, Christian and Catholic school personnel, who emphasize the inculcation of specific values, could view the findings as dismaying, and then decide that they need to increase their efforts to move from the theoretical presentation of forgiveness versus retribution to more activities at the application level. Those opposed to separate religious schools, however, could take comfort from the lack of differences in the students’ responses, regardless of the school program differences. Christian, Catholic, and home school students did, however, give more forgiveness related reasons for their choices than did public school students. (See Battistich, Watson, Solomon, Schaps, & Solomon, 1991, and Lickona, 1991, for public school efforts to facilitate character development.) It is possible that the Christian idea of the desirability of making restitution complicated the children’s responses. Grimm’s ending had punishment, and Perrault’s ending had forgiveness without consequences. Perhaps some children who chose the retribution ending wanted consequences with forgiveness, but that was not an option from Grimm or Perrault.
Overwhelmingly, the children, boys and girls, would read the forgiveness ending to a four-year-old sister, but they tended to read the retribution ending to a four-year-old brother. The group with the most extreme responses in terms of preferring the forgiveness ending for themselves and for a four-year-old sister or brother was the home school girls. Perhaps home school girls are more sheltered than other children in terms of exposure to violent stories, as shown by the low percentage of home school girls who had heard the retribution ending (4%). (See Knafle and Wescott, 1994, 1996, for a discussion of home school reading practices.)
It seems that efforts within the last twenty-five years in the elementary grades to diminish stereotypical gender related stories and to encourage children to view characters’ actions without regard to gender have not had much effect on ten-year-olds’ ideas of what is appropriate for young males versus young females. The children’s responses were surprising in view of such efforts to eliminate gender bias in school texts. University students who read the fifth graders’ reasons for their choices made such comments as “I can’t believe they’re saying these things,” and “How can they be so sexist?” It is important for educators to be aware that children’s attitudes and preferences may support traditional sex-role stereotypes. (See Beal, Garrod, Ruben, Stewart, and Dekle, 1997, for a summary of research findings concerning the lack of gender differences in moral orientation in children.) It is also possible that some children responded more to the violence than to the forgiveness and retribution in the endings.
While the adults specifically mentioned forgiveness and retribution most often of all the groups, followed by the tenth and twelfth graders, the children’s percentages of forgiveness and retribution related reasons for their choices were lower. (After seeing the responses of the fifth graders, we decided to give the task to adults, and after seeing that the responses of the adults were different from those of the fifth graders, we decided to see whether high school students’ responses would fall between the two groups in terms of their choices and their reasons. The results did show such a progression among the groups.)
This study seemed to generate unusual interest among teachers and principals. We were originally concerned that we would have a difficult time finding schools, especially private schools, that would agree to allow their students to participate. That was not the case. The fact that Cinderella is such a well known and popular fairy tale is probably responsible for the interest in participating in the study.
There are all sorts of interesting studies concerning Cinderella. For example, Bottingheimer (1987) looked at the direct and indirect speech in succeeding publications of the tale and concluded that Wilhelm Grimm “removed direct speech from women and gave it to men.” (p. 59) and also used direct speech to define character. Worthy and Bloodgood (1992/1993) presented ways to teach different versions of Cinderella in the classroom, and the enduring interest in Cinderella has even generated a popular book, The Cinderella Complex, Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence (Dowling, 1981).
The specific concerns of this study, forgiveness and retribution, have also been looked at in different ways. Some researchers (Hunter, 1978; Pattison, 1965) have equated success in the ability to forgive with emotional maturity. Bettelheim (1976), however, clearly preferred Grimm’s retribution ending to Perrault’s forgiveness ending; he felt that retribution reassures the child and makes him feel secure and that the happy ending is deficient and “incomplete without the punishment of the antagonists” (p. 273). In his detailed discussion of Cinderella, Bettelheim omitted any mention of forgiveness, stating that it was incomprehensible why Cinderella would care for her stepsisters’ love, or they her’s.
The issues of what kinds of values are presented in stories for children and how to explore children’s responses to those stories are important and deserve increased scrutiny. (See Clare, Gallimore, & Patthey-Chavez, 1996, for a discussion of using moral dilemmas from children’s literature to teach moral education as well as reading comprehension.) This study provides information about children’s reactions to, and preferences for, forgiveness and retribution in a popular fairy tale. For future research, it would be interesting and informative to conduct in depth interviews with children of different ages and genders about those values and other values in children’s stories. For example, issues of jealousy and violence could be explored in Sleeping Beauty, disobedience and trickery in Little Red Riding Hood, and deception and greed in Rumpelstiltskin.
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Authors’ Note: Lawrence M. Kenney, Linda Jani, and Irene Reiter assisted with the data collection, and Ranfen Li, Joanne Donohue, Amanda Bial, Kathleen Doran, and Gerald Nihill assisted with the data analysis.