Today I continue my (lately dormant) series of articles on how to choose children’s books. In the last article in this series, “The Complexity of Children’s Stories and Social Development”, I discussed the “developmental value” of complex stories for children. Specifically, I argued that children’s books with complex plots and characters can promote important aspects of child development, such as reasoning abilities and memory.
In this article I will discuss a further feature that can give children’s books developmental value, namely exemplary characters. By “exemplary characters” I mean characters—fictional or non-fictional—that exhibit traits or activities that we hope for our children to value and embody in their lives. In this article I will explain how exemplary characters can encourage character development in children, and how adults can identify such characters in choosing books for children.
If you would like to read this series from the beginning, start with “How to Choose Children’s Books”.
Character Development in Children: A Philosopher’s View
As Aristotle taught us in the Nicomachean Ethics, character development in children occurs, at least in part, as a result of habituation. The more we practice—or make a habit of—certain ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, the more we develop character tendencies to think, feel, and act in these ways.
Moreover, Plato taught us in the Republic that the character of a human being is especially sensitive to such shaping and molding at a young age. As I previously posted, Plato writes (via his Socrates character), “You know, don’t you, that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender? It’s at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress on it” (The Republic 377a-b).
We might think here of an analogy with water flowing over soil. When children are young, their character is like soft soil, and their thoughts, feelings, and actions are like water flowing over that soil. As it flows, the water begins to work grooves or channels in the soil in certain places. The more water that flows in these particular grooves, the more pronounced the grooves become, growing from small rivulets into creeks and rivers. Over time, the soil hardens somewhat, and the grooves become more fixed in place (though perhaps never completely). Similarly, the habitual grooves of our character become more fixed in place over time.
Book Characters and Development
Now, not only lived experiences shape our character. The vicarious experiences derived from books can also shape us. Indeed, this is the idea behind books like William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, an excellent anthology that retells traditional stories thought to shape the character of children in beneficial ways. In the introduction to the book, Bennett writes, “If we want our children to posses the traits of character we most admire, we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance. Children must learn to identify the forms and content of those traits” (p. 11). Bennett’s thought is that by reading traditional stories of virtue, and by observing the virtuous characters in such stories, children will be helped along in this process of developing “moral literacy”, i.e., the ability to identify and value the virtues. Children will learn from such characters how they ought to think and act, and then imitate what they have seen.
Described in this way, the process by which good characters stimulate virtue in children is primarily cognitive: children observe the good activity, and then intentionally repeat it. However, this description leaves out an affective aspect of this process that may actually be more important than the cognitive aspect of character development in children.
When a child reads a good book, she will often identify with one or several of the characters (e.g., the protagonist). In other words, a compelling character in an interesting story will draw the child into an emotional connection with the character, and the child will actually vicariously live the story as the protagonist, to some extent. Or, the child will become “friends”, in a certain sense, with the protagonist: she will cheer when the protagonist succeeds, grieve when she fails, and will want to spend more time with her.
Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to children: when I read The Hunger Games (click here for my summary and review) there were times when my heart was pounding as hard as Katniss’s; and when I was reading the Harry Potter novels I literally missed Harry, Ron, and Hermione if I hadn’t “spent time” with them lately.
My point in all this is that the affective engagement with characters in books—through identification and friendship with them—is just another kind of water running over the soil. When a child identifies with a character emotionally, it is as if she is experiencing the character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions herself. These experiences, then, begin to wear grooves of their own in the child’s character. The child is subtly pressed to think, feel, act, and value as the protagonist does.
Similarly, when a child becomes “friends” with a character in a book, she learns from that character in a way that goes beyond merely observing and intentionally trying to imitate. Just as in ordinary friendships, the child’s fictional friend “rubs off” on her. The pleasures, struggles, and choices of the fictional friend subtly become the child’s pleasures, struggles, and choices. In a good story with compelling characters, all this happens subconsciously.
Moreover, it is important to point out that all this can work for ill, as well as for good. As St. Paul reminds us (quoting Menander), “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Cor. 15.33) In other words, just as bad friends can influence the character development of children negatively, so can bad fictional friends. And identifying with a bad character can be like developing a bad habit.
How to Choose Children’s Books with Exemplary Characters
The obvious upshot, here, is that adults should look for books with protagonists that exhibit the right sort of activities and values. If you want your child to be courageous, give her books with courageous characters. If you want your child to persevere, give him books with characters that persevere. Similarly, if you want your child to enjoy potty humor, give her books with characters that revel in potty humor. Or, if you want your child to be disrespectful toward adults, give him books with characters that are disrespectful toward adults. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek at this point.)
Moreover, this same obvious point applies to both fiction and non-fiction books. Although I have been focused mainly on fiction, a good biography, or a history book with compelling characters, will have much the same effect. It is a regular, and I believe influential, part of my children’s home-school education to read about the lives of interesting and generally virtuous historical characters.
Perhaps a less obvious point in all this is that my analysis does not mean that adults should find books with characters that do everything just right. Indeed, I urge you not to do that! The reason such picture-perfect characters are actually not developmentally helpful is that they generally come across as shallow, wooden, and unrealistic. In short, these characters are not believable and have little emotional purchase on us. We don’t identify with them because we are not simple and perfect, but rather complicated and imperfect. And we don’t want to be friends with them because they aren’t interesting.
Thus, the best kind of character is one that is more realistic and complex. Such characters sometimes blow it. Harry Potter provides a perfect example. As I noted in my summary and review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry sometimes does some bad stuff. However, that does not disqualify him as an exemplary character, since he generally feels remorse when he does wrong, and the overall orientation of his character is toward the good and against evil. Moreover, when Harry does wrong, J.K. Rowling generally has him suffer some consequences, which helps mold a young reader’s character in the right direction. In short, it is not a problem if compelling characters do bad and get bad; what is a problem, in my view, is if compelling characters do bad and get good. A child’s affective engagement with a character that does bad and gets good generates and reinforces the wrong sort of grooves in her character.
Lest my Harry Potter example make you think that I’m talking only about books for tweens and teens, let me emphasize that I intend for all that I’ve said to apply to books for younger children too. For example, in Pippo Gets Lost, by Helen Oxenbury (click here for my review of Pippo Gets Lost), I think Tom’s effort (with the help of his parents) to find Pippo, his lost toy monkey, subtly encourages perseverance in toddlers. However, Tom also reflects the realistic frailties of toddlers (and people in general): half-way through the search he gets discouraged and upset. Thus, Tom is both virtuous and realistic, a character that toddlers happily identify with and befriend.
In the next article in this series, I will continue my discussion of the developmental value of children’s books by exploring the topic of mischief as a criterion for choosing children’s books.
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