Cultivating Goodness

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From the start, each child is unique. Some of my babies couldn’t get enough coddling, attention, and fussing over from me, their mother. Others desired only to be fed, bathed, dressed then move aside as they’ve got things to do. One young daughter was deeply interested in all things dinosaur while another immersed herself in pinky gauze, sequins and drama. While I couldn’t converse long enough with one little son, the other kept his thoughts and wishes deep inside sharing one-word answers at best. But, with the diverse personality and interest variety in all young souls there is a commonality, the longing to know. Aristotle states, “The human soul stretches itself out to know.” We are made to know and we yearn to know from a young and early age.

Children are great imitators and all learning begins with imitation. They observe and imitate their parents, siblings, teachers and characters in books. They will imitate what they observe or understand in their minds first then try it out for themselves. Aristotle teaches, “…and in this they differ from the other animals because they are the most imitative and produce their first acts of understanding by means of imitation; also all human beings take delight in imitations.” Not only is this a wake-up call for us in our influential parental role but also encourages us as nurturers to deliberately choose what resources we present to our child as they learn by imitation and pursue their quest to know. What music do they hear, what are they watching on the screen and what storybooks are at hand? For this post, I would like to focus on the latter, stories and storybooks and their influence on a child’s voracious efforts to learn, imitate and make sense of their world.

Children like stories, in fact we all like stories. Stories introduce us to other lives, other worlds, but with a similarity that connects us. We learn of things that could happen and also things that could never happen as in fantasy or make-believe but which have a reality about them. Because each of us is also living a story, reading about other people, times, places and experiences is a profound way to learn beyond our own experience. When we begin a story, we wonder where it will take us, what will we learn, how will we be enlightened, is there good here? Children are constantly gathering information about life as everything is new to them. They are at the beginning of their life story. What an extraordinary and exciting time of life to regularly experience and learn of things for the first time! With the gifts of awe and wonder children naturally possess, their hearts and minds are receptive to deep learning as awe and wonder are the immediate provocations of deep learning. It is a powerful opportunity to influence a child’s life for good.

In their quest to learn, children are drawn to things they don’t understand. When introduced to a character in a situation, they follow along with the choices and actions taken and in turn learn from them. “Children read a book about a sports hero and they long for glory. Children read about a fictional character and they are taught character qualities of courage, steadiness, determination, etc. Children can compare it to their own world. They can see it better, in a new context. It is fascinating.”  – C.S. Lewis

The stories best for children are those that contain comparisons, those that teach the range of things: good and evil, right and wrong, courage and cowardliness. These stories of benefit teach truths such as to obtain goodness comes at the cost of giving up something of value. The awareness that the opposite exists acknowledges there is a comparison. To understand and learn without opposite values is a distortion of reality. It doesn’t offer children the opportunity to imitate. Fairy tales contain rich examples of comparison. Fairy tales are not always happy, they contain darkness but they also contain the contrast with good, beauty, and right. Fairy tales are profound for the conflicts are simply and clearly told.

As invested parents, we aim to teach our children. A proper moral education includes both heart and head. Children want to know the goodness of things, the identity of things. Goodness is the identity of good things. Beginning in early childhood, teach your child by reading together from the best stories containing this identity. It satisfies their yearning to know, offers character traits, situations of comparison and captivates and stirs a child’s imagination. Regularly, beginning now and continuing on through the years, present your child with storybook heroes to emulate. The situations of what could be and should be will be presented to capture the meaning of morality and anchor a moral imagination to build on, refer to and imitate.

It takes a long time, it is surely a lengthy process to learn the rules of life, to learn right from wrong and how to play the game well. Assist and support your child by choosing from the best of stories. You will nurture their yearning to know the identity and goodness of things. Good stories, including fairy tales, hold a wealth of goodness from which your child can learn from, refer to and imitate as they maneuver through the choices and pathways of life.

Note: This post is based on my notes from an outstanding children’s literature course from Hillsdale College with professors, Larry P. Arnn and Daniel B. Coupland. I thank them for their enlightenment and goodness.

Janet Nicole Meyer

Janet Nicole Meyer

The founder and author of Golden Days at Home preschool curriculum savors all opportunities to play and travel with her now grown children. She and her husband hike, bike and enjoy living on a stream in Boulder, Colorado with their elderly English Mastiff, Roxy.

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