Using Stories to Develop Character
At the end of a long, exhausting day full of real-life troubles, bedtime rituals can offer comfort. Especially story time.
A good story with strong characters and high morals can inspire both children and parents alike. Even the classics are beneficial, where lazy pigs get eaten, boys who cry “wolf!” are ignored and a rebellious gingerbread man meets his doom.
Such stories help children understand the importance of hard work, honesty and discernment; in short, the reality of consequences. Through books, children can learn what’s possible and hopefully some important lessons.
Recently our son Harrison started being less than forthright about things. I reached for The Boy Who Cried Wolf to illustrate the importance of telling the truth.
Yes, it was challenging to explain to a 4-year-old what happened to the little boy when the wolf really showed up and no one came to his rescue. But if Harrison can learn honesty by reading a story, even one that involves the demise of a naughty trickster, how much better than having to experience that pain firsthand.
Some might argue that life’s scary enough without reading fanciful tales of woe. I understand their concerns. I certainly don’t want to introduce nightmares, filling my kids’ heads with endless warnings of what bad things might happen.
But I do want them to understand human nature and develop wisdom. And there are lots of books well suited to the task. Experts agree: Reading is one of the best things you can do for your children. And what you read matters.
How Stories Develop Us
Find out why 15 minutes of story time is a small investment with the potential for big returns.
Not every evening is the occasion for a life lesson. In fact, most nights we’re too tired for anything too challenging. Often we opt for a silly rhyme book or a review of the basics: colors, numbers, the ABCs. On those evenings I know the kids are happy just to have some time of physical closeness and affection. And they’re associating a learning activity with a loving one.
Thankfully there are evenings when we’re up for a character-shaping story. And as children grow older, their ability to absorb more challenging and complex stories grows, as does their need for inspiring tales. If you start when they’re young, there’s a good chance they’ll love books when they most need them.
In his book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles recalls his mother’s attempts to use literature to reach him during his turbulent teen years. “When I was a high schooler of 16 and inclined to be moody and troublesome at home,” he writes, “my mother bought me a copy of War and Peace and asked me earnestly, pleadingly, to spend the summer reading it.”
Though he protested in her presence, he “took to reading the novel, but on the sly.” It took Coles until the end of high school to finish the story, but the masterpiece was working on him. He developed a deep love of literature and went on — after earning degrees in pediatric medicine, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis — to use the same stories that shaped him to teach students in the schools of medicine, business, divinity and government at Harvard and other distinguished universities.
On many evenings I’d much rather collapse on the couch than take the time to read to my children. But 15 minutes of story time is a small investment with the potential for big returns.
How to Choose Good Children’s Stories
Do you know what to look for when choosing books to read with your children?
The bookstores and libraries are full of books for children — thousands of them. But not all children’s books are created equal. With so many choices, it’s hard to know where to begin.
There are gems hidden in the discount rack and a few stinkers with the Newbery Medal stamped on them. Whole books have been written about which books are worth reading to your children. Bill Bennett’s anthology The Book of Virtues, Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart and Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook come to mind. Such collections are helpful, but knowing what to look for can expand your selection even more, enabling you to create your own list of favorites.
- Avoid simplistic moralizations — Look for stories that show, not tell. “C.S. Lewis said that no book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty,” writes Gladys Hunt. “Children’s books cannot be written for or down to children.… A good book has a profound kind of morality — not a cheap sentimental sort which thrives on shallow plots and superficial heroes, but the sort of force which inspires the reader’s inner life and draws out all that is noble.”
- Beware of adaptations and retellings — In the name of political correctness, new releases of old stories are not always true to the original. When the Three Little Pigs all survive by running to the home built of brick, the lesson of planning ahead and heeding advice is blunted. In this age of political correctness, it’s harder to find the original where the two pigs that took the easy route become snack food for the hungry wolf. But it’s worth the effort. Too often plots are altered to reflect modern sensitivities at the expense of the story’s effectiveness.
- Keep it principled — Some stories give too much detail about painful subjects, subjects a lot of kids wouldn’t necessarily encounter in their everyday lives. Stories about divorce, child abuse, homosexuality and other “hot topics” prematurely erode children’s innocence about the world. Look for stories that focus on what it takes to overcome crises, rather than those that dwell on the crises themselves.
- Avoid mere description — Some kids need books to survive. For kids who have experienced such crises in their own lives, the last thing they want to do is read books about how everyone else is equally oppressed. It’s not enough to say life is hard. They need stories of survival where characters persevere and overcome hardship
Not all Stories are Created Equal
There are good reasons to choose your children’s books wisely.
Some books are just better than others. They have better illustrations, better production quality and better stories. There are good reasons to choose your children’s books wisely:
- The repeat factor — Like best friends, your children’s favorites will be identified and asked for over and over. It’s not unusual for a 3-year-old to ask for the same book 100 times in a row. That’s reason enough to make sure you choose books you enjoy reading.
- The memorization factor — Kids’ memories are amazing. After five or so readings of a book, it’s not uncommon for a toddler to have the story down cold. And it’s not just the flow of words they catch, but the underlying message. Look for books that are consistent with your values.
- The reality check — Kids want stories that are based in real life. For example, big brothers the world over know the power of their little sister’s whining. But that doesn’t mean you have to concede the point that little sisters are annoying and the best you can hope to do is neutralize them. One of our favorite books, The Little Brute Family, describes a typical sibling relationship where brother and sister push and shove and punch and pinch their way to school. Though the telling may be exaggerated, most kids will see a bit of themselves in the book, and it’s hard to miss the point that this family’s existence in a “dark and shadowy woods” is far from sunny. And the ending is a refreshing antidote to sibling quarrels.
Beware of Adaptations and Retellings
Not only did the fox betray the cookie, but the book betrayed me.
During a recent trip to the post office, our 4-year-old son introduced himself to a little girl near his own age. Within five minutes of meeting, he was kissing her and inviting her over to play. Always an extrovert, it was time for him to learn some social boundaries. I picked up a copy of The Gingerbread Man from the library and settled in for some classic story time.
I figured the tale of the energetic, rebellious cookie who ran away from the people who could help him, stopping only to trust the conniving hungry fox, was a good place to start. Though not a perfect analogy — little girls in the post office are rarely a threat to one’s safety — my hope was that he would develop a healthy distrust of strangers.
As the story goes, the gingerbread man accepts a fox’s offer to ferry him across the river in order to escape the farmer, the farmer’s wife and all their farm animals running after him. Nearing the end of his ride on the fox’s back, the little cookie trusts the fox one more time, moving up to his snout to avoid getting wet. And true to form, the fox throws his head back, opens his jaws and swallows the cookie whole. Betrayed!
Just when I hoped our son was catching the moral — regardless of what they promise, foxes will be true to their nature and loyal to their stomachs — I noticed we weren’t at the end of the story. Not yet. I turned the page and there it was, the words that qualified this book as a “retelling” for modern ears.
The story went on:
“But don’t be sad, for that wasn’t the end of the gingerbread man.
The gingerbread man has gone away,
But he’ll be back some other day.
For gingerbread men return, it’s said.
When someone bakes some gingerbread.”
In other words, it’s OK that the cookie trusted the wily fox because gingerbread rejuvenates itself every time the farmer’s wife bakes cookies.
Not only did the fox betray the cookie, but the book betrayed me. I wanted my son to ask hard questions like “What happened to the gingerbread man?” “Why did the fox eat him?” “How will he get out of the fox’s mouth?” My whole reason for choosing this story was to gently show my son the need for caution when dealing with people you’ve just met. I wanted him to understand that trust is something you must earn.
Whoever published this book wanted to blunt the edges. But in doing so, he silenced the tough questions.
Reading for Survival
Kids in real trouble can often find in books the help that eludes them in real life.
Kids in real trouble can often find in books the help that eludes them in real life. Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, tells how he overcame abject poverty and appalling circumstances to learn to read, gain an education and eventually rise to be one of the most influential leaders of his day.
Rather than defining himself by the life into which he was born, he strived for something different.
In those days, and later as a young man, I used to try to picture in my imagination the feelings and ambitions of a white boy with absolutely no limit placed upon his aspirations and activities. I used to envy the white boy who had no obstacles placed in the way of his becoming a Congressman, Governor, Bishop, or President by reason of the accident of his birth or race. I used to picture the way that I would act under such circumstances; how I would begin at the bottom and keep rising until I reached the highest round of success.
In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.
Sadly, many modern publications take the opposite approach, offering stories that empathize with kids in trouble rather than offering hope for a way out. For example, Stranger in Dadland tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who flies cross country to visit his divorced dad every summer and every summer hopes he’ll feel his dad’s love and acceptance. It’s a depressing true-to-life tale that accurately depicts life in a broken family.
When kids in crisis read, they want stories that offer the hope that obstacles can be cleared and joy can be found. They may find comfort in a character who shares their predicament, but only if he overcomes it. It’s unlikely they’ll be uplifted by a tale of woe that merely mimics their own situation.
What all kids crave in stories are tales of wonder, mystery, heroism, courage and other themes that stir the moral imagination. That’s not to say all good stories end “and they lived happily ever after” but that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the characters learn how they should respond and in the end, do the right thing.
If children spend time reading stories like Red Badge of Courage, Little Women, The Chronicles of Narnia and even The World of Pooh, they will learn about traits of strong character — kindness, courage, grace, patience, honesty and more — that will help them should a real-life crisis arise.
Keep Reading As They Get Older
Even teens who can manage more difficult texts still benefit from the relational interaction that comes from reading aloud.
Stories have the power to shape our character, ignite our imagination and form a vision for the people we want to become. And story time isn’t just for infants and toddlers.
In his book The Read-Aloud Handbook, author Jim Trelease explains that children’s listening skills outpace their reading level; they can listen to and understand more advanced books than they can read to themselves. While they may not be much past sounding out “see spot run; run, spot, run,” they can enter the adventurous world of Charlotte’s Web, if only a willing adult will take the time to read to them.
It’s not just about longer, harder-to-pronounce words. It’s about more advanced concepts. At 4, our son can barely sound out “tell the truth.” But he can listen to The Boy Who Cried Wolf from start to finish.
Even teenagers who can manage more difficult texts still benefit from the relational interaction required for reading aloud. You’re never too old to be read to.
As a boy, Robert Coles thought his parents were odd for reading and rereading classic literature aloud to one another. He even asked his dad about it, wondering why anyone would prefer the words on a page to the exciting stories available at the time on the radio. It wasn’t until years later that Coles understood his parents’ love of those texts was like fondness for old friends; friends they shared.
Next Steps/Related Information
Popular questions, plus related resources and articles on reading.
Popular questions on this topic:
- How do you instill practical moral values in a school-age child?
- Does Focus have any input on the Harry Potter entertainment trend?
- Bible Stories for Growing Kids
- 20 Bible Stories Every Child Should Know
- “Reading to Children” (Broadcast CD)
- Young Reader’s Bible
- The Daily Message