Why the Wolf in Red Riding Hood Isn’t Bad

July 25, 2019
We generally label children as good or bad based on their behavior. But do a person's actions really represent their entire being? The example of the wolf in Red Riding Hood can help answer that question.

Our world has sped up a lot in the past few decades. That can make it hard to stop and think about what you do and say to your kids. How many times have you said or heard someone say something such as: “Pedro, don’t hit your sister, that’s bad“. It’s definitely familiar to me. I’ve heard it a lot and even said it myself. But what are we really saying?

Obviously, it’s not okay for Pedro to hit his sister, but to tell him that he’s “bad” might be going too far. I think one of the most important things we can try to be more aware of is to separate the action, the child’s behavior, from who the child is. You need to be able to separate between the act and the person and be careful with labels.

A father having a stern talk with his son.

The danger of labels and why the wolf in Red Riding Hood isn’t bad

I’m sure that if Pedro’s dad says that to him, it’s because he’s done something that isn’t okay, and he shouldn’t act that way.

But here’s the thing. The inappropriate part of it is the action in and of itself, not Pedro. If you constantly conflate your child’s actions and behavior with who they are, you’ll probably end up lowering their self-esteem over time, without realizing it. Saying “You’re thoughtless” (personality) and “That was thoughtless” (behavior) are leagues apart.

This is part of why I’ve always found it so interesting that kids would say the wolf in Red Riding Hood is bad. We only give the wolf that personality trait (“bad”) because he wants to eat Red Riding Hood.

The conclusion is simple: if he wants to eat her, it’s because he’s bad. Only bad people would do something like that.

After reading and hearing so many wolf stories such as Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, and Peter and the Wolf, we’ve decided they’re bad because they want to harm the main characters. Thus, we label them as “bad,” even though that’s not necessarily the case. 

Of course the wolf isn’t bad. The wolf wants to eat Red Riding Hood because he’s hungry, not because he’s bad. If you were to explain that to your children, it could help them have more realistic, healthy, and positive expectations about the world. Poor wolves, look what a bad rap they get! Try to change the way you describe these characters.

The art of describing behavior

Luis Cencillo was a philosopher and psychologist who liked to use a concept that I think is very practical: “resemantization“. The root of this word comes from “semantics,” the linguistic study of meaning. So, what this means is changing your description of something to make it more flexible. 

For example, instead of saying a child is strange and evasive, you could resemantize (re-label) them as shy. Think about how hard it is to get rid of a label once you’ve put it there! It’s like psychologist Alberto Soler says. It’s easy to put a label on something or someone but much harder to take it off.

To explain that better, Soler likes to use the metaphor of jar labels. Once you’ve labeled a child (nervous, bad, smart, helpful, restless, etc.), it’ll be hard to remove that label, even if you see something that goes against it. The point is: be careful about the labels you give people, especially children.

We have a tendency to act in a way that lines up with the labels or judgments we project outwards. We also tend to accept labels. Henry Ford had a good quote along these lines: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right”.

A mom sitting on the couch with her son, explaining something to him.

Another helpful story

One story I love to use to help explain the negative side of accepting a label or a role is “Galton’s Walk”. Francis Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin. One morning, he went into a park thinking that he was the worst person in the world. He didn’t speak to anyone. He just stayed in his head, thinking about how awful he was. 

How do you think Galton felt about the people he crossed paths with on his walk? Most of the people he passed by would move away from him and look at him in fear. Surprising, right? That’s the power of labels.

I want to go back to the explanation of why the wolf isn’t bad. Along those lines, I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as a bad child. But you’ll still hear people saying “X is bad” all the time. There’s always a reason behind problematic behavior.

I’m not saying you should justify the behavior (far from it). I just think it’s important to understand why a child is behaving a certain way. Thus, the best thing you can do with your kids and students is to describe behaviors instead of qualifying them or labeling them.

Take a moment to think about the explanations and labels you use with your children and the consequences they might have. The way you see things could help make theirs more flexible, healthy, and open.