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Layla Wal Theeb: Teaching children which road to take

Oct 23,2018 - Last updated at Oct 23,2018

The story of Little Red Riding Hood, Le Petit Chaperon Rouge or Layla Wal Theeb has been one of the most well-known and cross-cultural surviving folktales. Similar to other orally passed folkloric tales, the story’s details vary from one culture to another. Alongside having many adaptations, its motif remains indeed useful for a number of interpretations; being a warning from both physical harassment or harm to actual wolf attacks.

Tackling the Arabic version, the story involves an aspect that serves a purpose on the intervention of caregivers in children’s decisions and behaviours, the issue that will affect children on the long-term as well as the objectivity of their decision making process. The Arabic version of the story tells us that when the mother handed Layla the food basket, she warned her daughter from talking to strangers and not to go to the forest. Layla decided to pass by the forest to collect flowers for her sick grandmother where she met the wolf and foolishly told him where she was going. Afterwards, the wolf went to the grandmother’s house and disguised himself as the grandmother to trick Layla; however, Layla was later saved by a hunter who heard Layla shouting. It is noteworthy that while the story in English is referred to after the main character, Layla (Little Red Riding Hood); the title in Arabic literally translates to Layla and the Wolf; which is somehow an embedded message of how parenting and caregiving are viewed in our culture, discouraging youngsters from exploring the world without any explanation.

The motif in the Arabic adaptation is told to children for the wrong purpose, which is: “Do as I say or you will get hurt.” When the mother told Layla what road to take, she activated the human curiosity in her daughter, as she never explained the advantages and disadvantages of each option. Layla in the story psychologically felt that her freedom was threatened by her mother’s instructions; therefore, she subconsciously makes up her mind to pass by the forest and naively talk to the wolf. Reverse psychology suggests that when the chance that Layla would take either road was 50 per cent, it indirectly and subconsciously reset in her mind after her mother’s order, as forbidden things have a secret charm.

I asked a number of mothers why they thought that Layla took that decision, none of them had a conclusive answer. Some interpreted that the story’s moral was that children must obey their caregivers, unwilling to come to terms that children are smarter and more curious than we presume. Furthermore, emotional development is unfortunately looked upon as of less importance than physical development; this, I believe, is due to the fact that emotional development is not tangible like physical development. Besides, emotions cannot be measured or specified like physical needs; hence, caregivers presume that children are well if they are not hungry or suffering fever. Michigan State University Extension, in an article titled “The importance of critical thinking for young children”, recommends that the following steps help children learn and practice critical thinking: Encouraging pursuits of curiosity, learning from others, helping children evaluate information and promoting children’s interests and teaching problem-solving skills. Such steps would make children better decision makers and problem solvers as they grow up. The purpose of parenting should be considered as teaching children right from wrong and good from bad and allowing them to be inspired by caregivers’ deeds, leading by example ideally. 

The story holds in its folds a number of perspectives and could be examined from different angles. Understandably, caregivers provide guidance as they do not want their children to be harmed, but more importantly, children must be provided with a value system to navigate the world wisely. In other words, as the Greek proverb goes "He who becomes a sheep is eaten by the wolf”.


The writer works in media and communications for an international humanitarian institution.  She contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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