Stories can have a powerful influence on the formation of character and values in children. As such, the potential for character formation via stories is an important criterion for adults to consider when selecting books for children. In this article, I will describe how stories of virtue and vice can shape character in children, and I will offer some advice on choosing children’s books with character-building stories.
This article is an installment in my continuing series on how to choose children’s books, which begins here. In the previous article in this series I discussed the question of how adults should handle mischief in children’s books.
Stories of Virtue: Character-Building Stories
Historically, story telling for children has been a feature of most cultures. Often, this story telling has had the purpose, at least in part, of forming the character of children. Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales are good examples of character-building stories, i.e., traditional stories that have aimed at developing character in children. As I noted in “Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters”, the success of books like William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues suggests that many in our contemporary culture also recognize the connection between stories of virtue and character formation in children. This connection with character formation is part of what can give stories developmental value for children.
But, how do stories shape the character of children? One way—brought out by Bennett in his introduction to The Book of Virtues—is simply by showing kids what virtuous character traits look like in action. Bennett suggests that learning to recognize virtuous character through stories amounts to developing a sort of “moral literacy.” Just as kids need to learn to read and write, they also need to learn to recognize and perform virtuous activity.
As John Goldingay suggests, stories effect this learning process by drawing children into a world created by the author. In this world, children are attentive to the things the author picks out, things that they might not otherwise attend to among the many facts that stimulate them. As Goldingay puts it, “By portraying a past or imaginary or other world they [authors] issue a promise, a challenge, or an invitation that opens up a future or a possible world” (Goldingay 65). In other words, stories show children a world that could be, and that should or should not be, and draw them into it.
To put things in the language moral philosopher Barbara Herman, being drawn into a story can help children learn the “rules of moral salience”, i.e., the rules about which features of the world have ethical importance and which do not (The Practice of Moral Judgment, pp.77-78). For example, stories help children distinguish decisions involving injuries, deception, and promises—morally relevant features of the world—from decisions to scratch one’s nose, or to go out for dinner—which do not generally have moral import. This seems to be the sort of learning that Bennett has in mind when he speaks of developing moral literacy.
Finally, similar to the way in which exemplary characters in children’s books can shape character, stories can engage the emotions of a child in a way that forms character. As a child is drawn into a story, to some extent she experiences the world of the story as she would experience real life. However, engagement with the world of a story tends to be more affectively stimulating since stories cut out many of the boring parts of life. In stories, children get experiential high points, and the affective aspects of these experiences tend to ingrain the experience on a child’s character in a way that does not happen during the ordinary, boring parts of life. Just as we are shaped by the emotionally charged experiences of our lives—whether positive or traumatic—so engaging stories can shape us, because of (and through) their emotional charge.
Thus, reading a moving story of bravery can embolden children to face life’s trials with courage. Or, reading an engaging story in which lying turns out badly can strengthen a child’s resolve against lying. Conversely, an affectively engaging story in which characters are mean without consequence can stimulate similar unkindness in children.
Advice on Choosing Character Building Stories
Given what I’ve already said about the role of stories in the character formation of children, my advice on choosing children’s stories will likely seem pretty obvious. First, choose stories that cast good values in a positive light. In other words, choose stories that hold up virtues such as courage, self-control, friendship, or justice as attractive, as worthy of a child’s activity.
For example, Martin’s Big Words (click for review) or Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
—picture books that feature African-American freedom-fighters Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman (hero of the Underground Railroad)—illustrate justice and courage in a way that might stir a child to embody such values. Similarly, 2010 Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me (click for review) explores the nature of friendship in a way that might encourage a child to richer and wiser friendships.
Second, avoid stories that cast bad values in a positive light. Such stories draw kids to the wrong sorts of character and behavior. Lately, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Captain Underpants series have been my favorite punching bags in this respect. For more of what I think about them see my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, my review of The Adventures of Captain Underpants, or the prior article in this series, about mischief.
Third, and importantly, avoiding stories that make bad values attractive does not entail steering clear of stories in which bad things happen, or even stories in which people make ethically bad choices. Stories in which characters—even central characters—do bad things can still impel a child toward good character.
For example, the central moral lesson of one of the most famous of Aesop’s Fables—“The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is drawn from a character who lies repeatedly. Similarly, in Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona, Big Anthony cannot keep his hands off of Strega Nona’s magical pasta pot—despite having promised to do so. What makes stories like these worthy of choice, despite the bad actions of the characters, is that the bad actors experience bad consequences as a result of their actions. On some versions of Aesop’s Fable, the boy is eaten by a wolf when no one believes his warning cry (after so many false ones). In Strega Nona, Big Anthony floods the town with pasta and has to over-eat his way out of the mess. These negative consequences help children properly view lying and promise-breaking as “not to be performed”.
As a final piece of advice, I suggest asking yourself a key question when trying to determine whether a story is liable to shape a child’s character in the right sort of way: what does the story invite me to take pleasure in? If the answer is something that you think is genuinely valuable, then it may be a good choice (assuming it’s also a book with subjective appeal). However, if the answer turns out not to be something you want your child to act out or embody (e.g., humiliating or betraying others), run away! It is also important to ask what a story invites you to be uneasy about, i.e., preferably bad things, though it is more rare for a children’s book to encourage uneasiness about good things.
In the next installment in this series on how to choose children’s books, I will take up the topic of educational themes, and their role in rendering a book developmentally valuable for children. For further resources on character building stories, click here. For some real-life stories of virtue, click here.
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