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
But, how do stories shape the character of children? One way—brought out by Bennett in his introduction to The Book of Virtues
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
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.
—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
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.
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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