Albert Einstein once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
I want my children to be smart as much as the next parent, but what I really care about is their character.
Happily, fairy tales might still be the answer.
I spent this last weekend at a conference in which University of Virginia professor Vigen Guroian stated that the heart of a true education is to develop a moral vision in our children. He said that the reading we do for pleasure, that which comes easiest to us, has the greatest influence on us. What more pleasurable reading is there for a child than folk and fairy tales?
His book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination shows how stories like Pinocchio, The Snow Queen, and The Wind in the Willows, among others, illustrate the difference between good and evil far better than any didactic sermon.
“Mere instruction in morality,” he writes, “is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced.” Anyone who has ever been a child knows how true that statement is. My mother would only have to suggest I not scuffle my feet as I walked for the desire to do so overcome me like a fast-acting virus.
Anthony Esolen, in his utterly delightful book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, writes, “Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.” In other words, in fairy tales, bad loses and good wins. When birds peck out Cinderella’s nasty stepsisters’ eyes, a child learns something about being nasty and just might take note.
Esolen continues: “… when you starve the child of the folk tale, you not only cramp his imagination for the time being. You help to render vast realms of human art (not to mention human life) incomprehensible. … [I]f you have no heart for the folk tale, you must wave goodbye to Puccini. And to almost all the other great operas. And to the romances and comedies of Shakespeare. And to Macbeth, King Lear, and Richard III. And to Homer. And to the whole idea behind Dante’s Divine Comedy … and to all the works of William Faulkner. And to Flannery O’Connor’s macabre fairy tales of sin and redemption. … And to The Twilight Zone. And to Star Wars.”
If Jesus Himself taught through stories, we would be remiss not to recognize and capitalize on them as one of the most powerful vehicles not only to deliver “lessons,” but also to inspire children to goodness and point them toward the transcendent. I may forget the date that WWII started, but I will never forget Corrie ten Boom’s stories (with accompanying lessons of forgiveness) of the concentration camp. My father’s stories of his childhood in Maine have done more to inspire my work ethic than any number of scoldings.
At the end of Vigen Guroian’s talk, someone asked the question we all wanted to ask: How, then, do we bring, inspire, or otherwise create that which is true, good, and beautiful?
It’s easy, Guroian said, “Start by telling a child a story.”