Helping & Healing
Princes, Princesses, Knights, and Nurses: Stories of Gender and Identity

Princes, Princesses, Knights, and Nurses: Stories of Gender and Identity

In this video, David talks about fairy tales, gender, and identity for young children:

Teaching first grade was a year of revelation. I cannot count how many times I thought to myself, “Woah! What just happened?!” or “Woah! That worked!” or “Woah! Did they really just say that?!” I was dumbfounded and awestruck every day.


I taught in a Waldorf school, and in my Waldorf first grade classroom, I told many many fairy tales. The kings, queens, knights, old witches, dragons, and princesses that featured in these fairy tales delivered deep and ancient wisdom about integrity, courage, kindness, compassion, empathy, and grit. The children took them all in and were able to both “retell” and enact the stories with remarkable accuracy.

During parent education meetings, however, the parents of my first graders regularly asked questions along the line of… “Why do you tell all these stories about strong valiant boys and passive, emotional girls? My son needs to know it is okay to cry. My daughter needs to know she can be bold.”


Instead of answering from a child development point of view, I told them what I saw:

  • That the children wanted to play ALL the characters of the story when we re-enacted them at the end of the week.
  • The boys wanted to be both the prince AND the princess.
  • The girls wanted to be the fighting knight AND the sympathetic nurse. They wanted to experience the wisdom and strengths and challenges of all the important characters.

They were universal.


Then, as I also taught these same children 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, I saw that over time certain children chose to “be” certain characters more often than others. Some of the boys wanted to be the King or the Thief or the Third Son. Some of the girls wanted to be the Queen or the Maiden or the Teacher. But some boys still preferred more nurturing roles and some girls preferred more adventurous roles. It wasn’t very black and white, and because our classroom felt safe and joyful, the children explored their identity by freely inhabiting whatever they were attracted to.

Because gender and identity is in the news a lot right now, your child is certainly feeling the tension and may even be watching you to know how to “be.” They will follow the cues of those around them and learn through imitation, what is okay in their world and what is not okay. When they witness another child in school teased for behaving a certain way, it will have an impact. When they hear a teacher praise another child for acting a certain way or looking a certain way or sounding a certain way, it will have an impact. They take that information in as "images" and then they build their sense of reality and identity with those images.


The good news is that there are other ways to introduce images into that reality and identity: stories!


There are the fairy tales and folktales of old – those certainly have a purpose and give tried and true images of universal moral qualities.

But then there are new stories – stories like Sparkle Stories that offer tailored images for unique circumstances. Stories about difference, about being with fear, about courage and about being yourself.

We recommend listening to lots of stories to help balance out the more common images your child will experience in their day to day life. We also encourage you all to see their emerging understanding of gender and identity as something flexible, delightful, and free.


Then they can come to know the world as a place that wants them to be their true selves – whoever that might be.

About the Author

David Sewell McCann

Story Spinner

David Sewell McCann fell in love with spinning stories in first grade – the day a storyteller came to his class and captured his mind and imagination. He has been engaged in storytelling all of his adult life through painting, film-making, teaching and performing. Out of his experience as a Waldorf elementary class teacher and parent, he has developed a four step method of intuitive storytelling, which he now shares through workshops and through this website.

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