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Example and Empathy


How do stories help to encourage character?


How do stories help to encourage character? William Bennett gave a good reply to that question in a speech delivered when he was secretary of education:

Do we want our children to know what honesty means? Then we might teach them about Abe Lincoln walking three miles to return six cents and, conversely, about Aesop's shepherd boy who cried wolf.

Do we want our children to know what courage means? Then we might teach them about Joan of Arc, Horatius at the bridge, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Do we want them to know about kindness and compassion, and their opposites? Then they should read A Christmas Carol and The Diary of Anne Frank and, later on, King Lear. . .

Bennett points to two things good stories provide: codes of conduct (honesty, courage, kindness) and good example (Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc). Stories acquaint us with the ideals by which people in our society hope to live, and they give examples of people trying to live by those standards.

Let's talk about good example first. It's the most obvious way stories and histories exert an influence over us. And that influence stems from our built-in need to identify and imitate.

Just look at the way your child identifies with a particular baseball or basketball hero. Look at the hours of practice he is willing to put in in order to more closely approximate his model. Or look at the influence that characters in films have on your child's behavior. He sees a Tarzan movie one day, and the next day he is stringing up rope swings in the backyard. He watches "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and suddenly his favorite word is "dude."

It is not a question of whether your child will find someone to identify with, the only question is with whom. The problem, of course, is that youngsters all too often make the wrong sorts of identifications. Bruno Bettelheim observed that for a child the question "Who do I want to be like?" is more important than "Do I want to be good?" There is no guarantee your child will want to emulate only good models. Crooks or con men can be glamorous or can be portrayed in an appealing Bonnie-and-Clyde fashion by the media. In some neighborhoods the most attractive and adventuresome figures are gang members. A lot depends on the available supply of models.

Obviously, there is something drastically unbalanced in the mix currently available to youngsters. When people like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Madonna are heroes to millions, it's time to worry. More than that, it's time to do something.

Fortunately, you can greatly improve the odds for your child. Books are one of the best if not the best way to increase the available supply of good examples. It would be nice if sufficient good examples could be found among family, friends, and neighbors, but life rarely works that way. None of us is perfect, and we need all the help we can get when it comes to showing youngsters the difference between right and wrong. Good stories help to compensate for our own deficiencies and for those of the community. This fact, understood by all other societies, is especially relevant to our own. In this age of broken neighborhoods and broken families, where adults are too busy, too self-absorbed, or too exhausted to supply strong personal example, the stock of good examples available in books becomes all the more important.

And the kind of identification that takes place through reading is potentially stronger than identification with an athlete or entertainer seen on television because, to some extent, the reader gets pulled into the story. He is not allowed to be simply an observer or a fan. It is a much more intimate relationship. The story gives him a chance to live along with the characters, to keep company with them, and, in doing so, to experience what they experience and learn what they learn. Fiction gives us more than good examples to admire from the sidelines; at its best it gives us an experience of the struggle to attain goodness. It allows us to share the courage of Henry Fleming (in The Red Badge of Courage) as he faces up to his duty as a soldier, to apologize with Almanzo (in Farmer Boy) for his hot temper, to experience the generosity of Jo (in Little Women) when she sells her hair to provide needed money for her parents, to sweat it out with the Scarlet Pimpernel as he smuggles refugees through the French sentry posts.

Of course, not all of the characters we meet will be fictional. Biography shows us that real people as well as fictional ones can overcome difficulties and set their own course in life. Part of the encouragement that comes from reading biography is to learn how many times great people fail before they succeed. Francis of Assisi, Clara Barton, Louis Braille, Frederick Douglass, and Winston Churchill all suffered setbacks that would have put an end to the careers of less determined people. One thing that may account for the determination of real-life heroes is that they themselves tend to be avid readers of biography. Douglass was inspired by Pitt and Fox, Churchill by Marlborough, Martin Luther King, Jr., by Douglass and Gandhi. Many of those individuals whom we think of as "self-made" would be quick to remind us how much they owe to the example of the men and women who preceded them.

We're not suggesting that children read only stories about "good" people. We can learn from bad examples as well as good ones which is why we have included biographies of Hitler and Stalin in our book list. Moreover, the good people sometimes behave quite badly. Achilles was vengeful, Peter was cowardly, Lancelot and Guinevere committed adultery, Silas Marner was miserly. But in these stories there is no doubt about how these people should have acted. Young readers don't need to have heroes of undiluted virtue as long as they are the kind of persons who want to get back on course once they get off it.

In addition to good examples, stories supply codes of conduct. It's a mistake to think children already know these codes, and an even bigger mistake to assume they will discover them on their own. Contrary to 'some faddish theories that arose in the seventies, children do not have an infallible inner guide. Children have to be socialized in order to behave properly, and they need to be taught right from wrong not asked to go figure. Fortunately, we don't have to do all the telling ourselves. We can let stories do some of it for us. In Bennett's words they provide "a stock of examples illustrating what we believe to be right and wrong, good and bad." And they are able to convey these lessons in a more engaging form than we can usually muster.

Consider this paragraph from The Little House on the Prairie:

Laura and Mary were up next morning earlier than the sun. They ate their breakfast of cornmeal mush with prairie-hen gravy, and hurried to help Ma wash the dishes.

Helping Ma wash the dishes: children helping their parents is a fairly elementary lesson in responsibility but not a bad one to learn. And not a hard one to swallow, as it is presented here. Notice that not much is made of this helpful behavior. It's passed over quickly and taken for granted. But we all benefit a great deal from the fact that such lessons are reinforced in literature as a matter of course.

It is often remarked that good literature does not moralize, but that is not to say that it does not teach us. In fact, it does. Often the lessons are quite simple ones. In Pinocchio, for instance, much is made of obedience to one's parent, of keeping promises, of telling the truth even when it hurts. Because the lessons are so simple, however, there is a tendency to take them for granted. Teachers assume that parents will attend to the basics, and parents assume that children will learn them in school. We also tend to forget how much repetition is required before basic moral principles sink in. One of the benefits of encouraging a child to read good books is that it saves his parents from doing all the reminding.

Adults also need to be reminded. The basic lessons are not only for children; the same simple truths are the stock of great novels as well. For example, Book Four of War and Peace contains a touching scene in which Nicholas Rostov, after losing a huge sum at gambling, must face his father, from whom he has borrowed only the week before. Nicholas, who has promised to borrow no more, is filled with grief over this breach of honor, yet when the time comes he manages to compound his error by affecting a casual attitude:

"It can't be helped! It happens to everyone!" said the son with a bold, free, and easy tone while in his soul he regarded himself as a worthless scoundrel whose whole life could not atone for his crime. He longed to kiss his father's hand and kneel to beg his forgiveness, but said in a careless and even rude voice, that it happens to everyone! The old count cast down his eyes on hearing his son's words and began bustling, searching for something. "Yes, yes, " he muttered, "it will. be difficult, I fear, difficult to raise ... happens to everybody. Yes, who has not done it?" And with a furtive glance at his son's face the count went out of the room .... Nicholas had been prepared for resistance, but had not at all expected this. "Papa! Pa-pa!" he called after him, sobbing, "forgive me I" And seizing his father's hand he pressed it to his lips and burst into tears.

The moral lessons brought forward in this scene are not terribly advanced. Nicholas Rostov is an intelligent young man of good education, but he can't master the simple task of refraining from throwing away the family fortune in a card game or the simple duty of offering an immediate apology.

But if right and wrong of this sort are so plain, why does Tolstoy trouble us with such scenes? The answer is that it is precisely these "simple" things that most of us have difficulty with. We know these obligations self-control, respect for parents but manage to forget them quite easily and need constantly to have our memory refreshed. "In matters of morality," observed Samuel Johnson, "we need not so much to be instructed as to be reminded."

Reread some of the great classics of literature and you will be surprised to find how often the plot revolves around simple moral failings on the one hand, and simple kindnesses on the other. More often than not the protagonists are faced not with thorny ethical dilemmas (of the type that many of today's educators love to throw at students) but rather with temptations of gambling, anger, lust, lying, and thievery. In other words, the "usual suspects." The great authors understood that people are brought low by common problems more often than by extraordinary ones. Likewise, the best of children's literature is concerned not with the latest ethical quandaries but with the perennial problems of growing up.

All this talk about right and wrong in stories is bound to raise some red flags, and perhaps some hackles, too. After all, one of the worst criticisms that can be leveled against a story is the charge of didacticism that the story tries to teach or preach. Many writers and critics insist that there should be a wall of separation between literature and morality. They argue that the moral in the story always kills the story.

Well, then, what about didacticism? Can a story teach the moral norms without being moralistic? Can it avoid sounding like a sermon? The answer in both instances is "Yes, it can,' but before making that case, let us issue some disclaimers.

We don't think fiction, whether for adults or children, ought to hit us over the head with a blunt moral. We don't think writers should write primarily out of a moral intent. A storyteller is, preeminently, a person who has a story to tell. Those who are primarily concerned about morals and only secondarily about art would probably be more effective as policemen or judges or professors of ethics. Some of the best children's stories are an interesting blend of morality and amorality because they were not consciously created with any lesson in mind: they grew out of a picture in the author's mind, or they were written to please a son or daughter or young friend, or they were written to please the child in the author. If Robert Louis Stevenson had a moral in mind when he wrote Treasure Island he might have taken care to make Long John Silver a less engaging character. What is the lesson of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, except to stay away from rabbit holes? The author tells us it has "no moral." Likewise, we would be hard pressed to find any clear moral in the old fairy tales before they were tidied up by later writers; many of them, as literary critic Humphrey Carpenter points out, "occupy a moral no-man's land:' Moreover, the imagination works in mysterious ways. Many writers say that their stories take on a life and shape of their own. Given these considerations it's not surprising that books written with the conscious intent of improving the young reader are not, in the main, either well written or effective. Anyone looking for a MORAL in bold letters will be disappointed in much of children's literature.

On the other hand, we also want to avoid the other extreme of suggesting, as is now fashionable, that good writers never have a moral in the back of their heads. We think it evident that many writers for children do. Aesop's fables and Pilgrim's Progress are clear examples of moral tales that are also part of the canon of classic stories. But so, in a somewhat different vein, are Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. And the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, unlike those of the Brothers Grimm, always have a clear moral structure. The same is true of Oscar Wilde's stories for children: "The Selfish Giant" for example, is a conscious parable on the theme of charity. Leo Tolstoy, who is generally considered to be among the greatest of novelists, wrote fables for children that are obviously instructional in intent (see The Lion and the Puppy, page 98, in our book list), yet powerful and moving.

Contemporary writers for children tend to disavow moral intent. Katherine Paterson, for example, was once annoyed by a reporter who asked, "What is your philosophy of writing for children? Isn't there some moral you want to get across to them?" She replied, "I'm trying to write for my readers the best story, the truest story of which I am capable." This is a good antidote for those with simplistic notions about stories and morals. Yet, at the same time her answer suggests an overriding sense of responsibility to her audience, as well as an obligation to be truthful. Her answer is shot through with the language of morality. Likewise, if we look into any one of her many fine stories, we are not left with an impression of moral neutrality. In practice most good writers for children, while they are concerned with being truthful, are also concerned with the impact their books will have on their readers, just as most good parents, whatever their views on censorship, tend to buy their children books by A. A. Milne and Mark Twain rather than books by the Marquis de Sade. The children's writer, after all, has a responsibility to children as well as to art.

We cannot mention Twain in this context without also mentioning his famous preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In it he cautioned that "persons attempting to find a moral" in his story would be "banished." Twain, as usual, was joking. In fact there are many morals to be drawn from Huckleberry Finn. But Twain gets away with his joke because his morals are never preachy. When they are present they flow naturally from the story. We never feel that our arm is being twisted. Instead we are caught up in the life, adventures, and qualms of conscience of a very real boy.

It is this true-to-life element that prevents moral fiction from becoming didactic. The didactic writer has a bunch of precepts to impart, and he invents a narrative to string them together. He is not particularly interested in the plot or the characters, only in the message. It is quite the opposite with true moral fiction. In fact, the codes of conduct inherent in such stories may not even be spelled out. Learning them is more a matter of learning by immersion into the culture of the book at hand the same way we learn the rules of our own culture. Thus C. S. Lewis remarks of Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows ("that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness") that "The child who has once met Mr. Badger has ever afterwards in its bones a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way."

Something similar could be said of the child who has read the fantasies of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish writer: he will have acquired an almost organic knowledge of the decency that humans ought to show one another. MacDonald has the ability to portray the beauty of well-ordered relationships and the ugliness of disrupting them. In a MacDonald story, selfish behavior appears to be boorish and dull, whereas selflessness is full of risk and excitement. There is a scene in MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie where a boy must place his hands in a magical fire if he is to be able to battle evil. At first he feels pain, but it eventually disappears. He then discovers that he has been given a gift: he can touch other people's hands and discover what they are like inside. Some people's hands feel like snakes, some like donkeys or hogs, and others like lions. This capacity to gauge the moral qualities of those he meets enables him to achieve his mission. According to the poet W. H. Auden, MacDonald was one of those rare writers able "to create an atmosphere of goodness about which there is nothing phony or moralistic."

C. S. Lewis achieves much the same effect. Gladys Hunt remarks of one scene in Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, "Suddenly anything other than obedience and loyalty seems incredibly stupid. We have never read this story without feeling a profound longing to keep our promises and to do what is right not because we have heard a sermon but because of the actions and decisions of the characters in the story."

For those who still object to morals in their stories there is one other point worth considering. Literature doesn't really work well without an ethical scale in the background. The absence of values is not only bad for us, it's bad for fiction as well. As the English writer Dorothy Sayers observed, "The dogma is the drama." Unless codes of conduct are taken seriously by both writer and reader, the violation of these codes can produce no dramatic tension. In short, if murder becomes unimportant, so do murder mysteries (Miss Sayers's specialty).

One of the reasons drama is in trouble today is that many codes no longer have the force they once did. The problem is plainly evident in Hollywood, where filmmakers must contend with ever higher levels of audience tolerance for misbehavior (a tolerance the filmmakers themselves helped to create). For example, once infidelity becomes common and acceptable, it is difficult to build a drama around the theme of adultery. As a result directors find it necessary to compound adultery plots with other tension-arousing elements. In Fatal Attraction they add a homicidal maniac to the mix; in Indecent Proposal a million-dollar incentive is thrown in. By contrast, the mere hint of adultery gave Shakespeare all the dramatic material he needed to write Othello.

Values don't have to be lit up in neon, but they do have to be there, and they have to carry a certain force, otherwise we're no longer talking about art but about sensationalism or titillation or, more likely, boredom. Imagine, if you will, The Hobbit without its backdrop of the struggle between good and evil; or imagine Huckleberry Finn minus the moral questions of slavery and equality. What we would have in both cases would not be great books, but well-written and mildly interesting travel stories.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, who is often cited as a foe of moralism, admits the point. "I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly present in every genuine work of art,' wrote Nabokov, and he often defended his controversial Lolita on moral grounds, saying it had "high moral content."

For obvious reasons we've left Lolita off our list, but we have been on the lookout for high moral content, and we've discovered there are many fine children's books that succeed in teaching important moral lessons without a trace of didacticism. There is an old maxim that says a book should both delight and instruct, and that has been our criterion for selection. We believe that children deserve better moral guidance than they have been receiving, but we also believe they deserve books that will capture their imagination.

This is not to say that there is no problem of didacticism in contemporary children's literature. In fact there is a serious problem. But it's not where you would expect to find it. More about that in the next chapter.




Kilpatrick, William, & Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe. "Example and Empathy." Chapter 2 in Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 28-37.

The Author

kilpatrick1kilpatrickWilliam K. Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of: Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West, Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe created The Golden Key, an award-winning children's book catalogue, Climb High, Climb Far : Inspiration for Life's Challenges from the World's Great Moral Traditions and Circle of Grace: Praying with and for Your Children

Copyright © 1994 William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe
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