Many Disney films are a typical fairy tale - full of 'good guys,' 'bad guys,' fights, magic, revenge, violence, and death. Disney displays such themes for more interesting, developed story lines, even if they are not the most appropriate for children. The company's intent of these films is simply for entertainment and to amuse the audience.
Bruno Bettelheim, an American psychologist internationally known for his studies on Freud and work on children, discussed the purpose of fairy tales in a similar manner to Disney's rhetoric. Bettelheim examined the "emotional and symbolic facets of traditional children's fairy tales" in his 1976 work The Uses of Enchantment. He focused on dark tales containing abandonment, death, frightening antagonists, and injuries, suggesting that these stories allowed children to face their fears in symbolic terms (Zehetner 2013). Anthony Zehetner, medical journalist, commented on Bettelheim's theory, "Through the fairy narrative, the child makes sense of life's bewilderment" (Zehetner 2013). Films like Disney's possess troubling themes that children can consider through the actions and fates of animated characters; the stories lend children the ability to "[deliberate\ each consequence" and observe "ethical" reasoning, according to Bettelheim (Zehetner 2013). But, do four-year-olds really have this ability? Do young children realize when watching Disney fairy tales that the character learned a valuable lesson throughout the plot line? Though Bettelheim's argument is a valid observation on viewers, for young children in their particular developmental stage his theory on fears may not apply.
Erik Erikson, another American psychologist, is similarly related to Freud for his theory of the developmental stages of life. Erikson's ideas differed from Freud's studies in that he believed humans developed throughout their entire lifespan. He examined human development in 8 stages: Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair, as shown in the image below with corresponding age groups (Sharkey 1997). Erikson believed that the first stage is the most important, for it shapes how the child will learn and grow. The infancy stage of Trust vs. Mistrust focuses on the idea that the child's parent is always there to take care of him - if the child is crying, mom or dad will be available and provide the child with what he needs. An infant is very uncertain of the world around him and in need of consistent response and caregiving from his guardian. If this care is given, the child has the ability to develop a sense of trust and feel secure later in life (McLeod 2013) The child develops his first essential connection and relationship of attachment with another person when he begins to trust mom or dad. Throughout stage 2 and 3, as the infant grows into a toddler and then a preschooler, this trust in a caregiver has given him the ability to trust himself and thus be autonomous and initiative. Within this sense of curiosity, independence, and eventually imagination, emerges an outbreak of nightmares and fears around the age of three ("Explaining Children: Three Theories of Development"). According to Erikson's theory, a trusting relationship with a parent is crucial, and if interrupted throughout early stages, self-trust and the ability to develop independence is negatively impacted.
So are Disney animations truly appropriate for infants and young children? At their psychological stage of development, experiencing the 'darkness' that Bettelheim advocated for would merely worsen their increasing fears and damage their essential idea of trust.