Books Build Character

by Wendi Capehart

A few months back, a friend and I exchanged our thoughts on how we can warn our children about the dangers of certain character flaws or the negative results of some of life's poorer choices. I prefer to use books. This is one reason why we don't limit our reading to books where the characters are all wholesome and practically perfect in every way. Another is that we don't wish to be more holy than the Bible, which also includes stories about men and women who were deeply flawed.

The Book of Books is, naturally, the best teaching tool of all.

But this post is about other books and how they may be used to teach character. I think there are some important benefits to teaching our children through the use of literary examples from books rather than from real life, although, of course, both can be used with good success. But, again, this post is about books.

So, here are some of my reasons why I think, in some circumstances, a book is a useful tool for educating my children about real life:

1. Many of us live in small towns and attend small congregations. In my family's case, there are almost no other young people at our local congregation except our own. There are no young married couples just starting out. We won't be seeing a Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility) for many years. There are so many personality types and character flaws and specific situations that require wisdom and experience to understand, yet my children may not be exposed to any of them personally until they are actually threatened by a real life example. I think books have the edge on real life because of the simple proximity issue.

2. Gossip. I was able to discuss Lucy Steele with my daughters comfortably when they were about 12 years old. For those sad and deprived souls who do not know who Lucy Steele is, she is a character in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. She pretends to befriend Elinor, our heroine, but she is really interested in herself and using Elinor to get to a young man both ladies care for. The first time my children read the book, they thought Lucy Steele's friendship was genuine, and were quite puzzled at the way she seemed to turn on Elinor later. We went back through Lucy's actions slowly, and I was able to point out subtle clues that her friendship was not what it seemed.

There are real 'Lucy Steeles' in the world and in the church buildings where we worship on Sundays. They do not all limit their attentions to unmarried men. I want my daughters to be forewarned and thus forearmed against this type of predator.

But teaching my girls about this is a delicate matter. I cannot use real life examples, even if they exist. I would never, ever, ever tell one of my young people that the woman sitting in the pew in front of us is after the husband of the woman sitting in the pew across from us. At the very least, consider the implications if an unwise, unwary or simply tired and thoughtless child let that slip in the wrong place! Oh, my!

I would also not like to tell my children too much about the unwisdom and sinful attitudes of people they know personally because children are such black and white creatures that I would fear I was making them very judgmental and harsh critics of their brethren. I think pointing out the flaws of our brothers and sisters in church to our children as an object lesson is a very dangerous route to take and bad for their characters. It can be done, and there may be times where it needs to be done, but never without the greatest tact and delicacy.

Dealing with fictional characters permits me to kick off my shoes a bit and get comfortable with the discussion.

3. With books you get a microcosm of human experience in a very small space of time - sometimes the problems that we experience are only the result of years of wrong thinking, sinful attitudes and/or bad choices. A book can span a life time in a few hundred pages.

4. The possibility of my own error - let's return to my original example - the flirtatious woman who worms her way into friendships in order to attract the male - in a book, we can know without any doubt that this is the motivation of the Lucy Steele types. In real life, we must admit that only God knows the heart. What if I am wrong about the reason a woman behaves in a manner I view as flirtatious? What if I see somebody who seems to be encroaching her way into the affections of a married man, but I am mistaken? How hurtful would my unjust suspicions be if I voiced them publicly to anybody else - even my children!

Even in matters far less serious than this, if I am not careful about what I say to my children about others and I turn out to be incorrect in my assessment, how much damage have I done to my credibility with my children?

Perhaps I am right, but I do not know the full circumstances. Perhaps the woman in question actually knows she has a problem and is working quietly to overcome it. Is it possible I have unfairly planted a seed of mistrust of her personally in my children's hearts? I cannot really know her heart or her goals and desires. Who am I to judge the intentions of the servant of another?

I think, with books, I can warn my children against certain character types long before we actually meet any of them without encouraging a judgmental and critical spirit, and without exposing them to personal unhappiness in the process.

Charlotte Mason, in common with many classical educators, suggests reading good books for their moral lessons as well as for their literary value. The better the literary quality, the more likely it is that the reader will gain something of moral value from his reading.

Miss Mason thought that children should be put in touch with the great ideas, with information clothed in literary language provided by great minds. Good books - meaning well-written books - contribute good material for moral growth.

I was first introduced to this idea rather late in life, when a friend explained to me why she thought her daughter should read Sense and Sensibility. She said it would be invaluable in showing our daughters how not to act, and that they could benefit from learning that lesson through the reading of this book rather than through heartbreaking experiences of their own. She pointed out some rich examples, both good and bad, in this book.

For those of who have, sadly, not read this delightful book, allow me to give a bit of the background. Marianne is all sensibility - that is, passion and feelings. She believes it is somehow not 'honest' to be led by her feelings and to act without thought upon what she is feeling at the moment. Her sister Elinore is sense - she has passions and heartfelt feelings, too, but she understands the value of self-control.

Marianne's passions and lack of self-control have led her to compromise herself in the eyes of London society. In those days, for a maiden to write letters to a young man who was not either a close relative or a fiancee´ was disgraceful. She has permitted herself to go too far in her feelings for a young man who encouraged her - and has now married another for money, and publicly repudiated Marianne. It's all very heartbreaking, and the young man in question has behaved dreadfully. Marianne's heart is broken. Elinore has also fallen in love with a man who turns out to be engaged to somebody else, but because she has kept her heart's counsel, behaved with restraint and prudence, she is not shamed before others as Marianne has been. In fact, Marianne is so distraught that her health is compromised, and she nearly dies. The passage that particularly stood out for my friend comes in chapter X, following Marrianne's near fatal illness.

Upon her recovery, she and her sister return to their country home. One afternoon while discussing the past, Marianne says that she does not wish her former young man ill, but hopes that his private thoughts and feelings are not worse than her own, because that will be suffering enough. Her sister Elinore asks,

"Do you compare your conduct with his?"

And Marianne's reply is what so struck my friend,

"No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours."

I was impressed, and inspired by that thought to look for more instances of both good and bad examples in literature. For several reasons, I think the bad examples in literature are actually more useful to my children, but I will explain more about that later. First I'd like to explain more about how to use books in this way.

As I read, I try to notice when I am reminded of some person or situation that I have personally known or experienced in real life. This is why good literary standards are so important, or at least one reason why. It is only in well written literature that you find such realistic characters and situations that you can say, "Why, that's just like..." If the book is not well written, the characters are not lifelike enough to remind you of anybody.

Having noted such a character or episode, I make the opportunity to discuss it with my young reader, and without naming real life names, explain that there are people in real life just like this character, or that sometimes events like the ones in this book really do happen to real people.

Stepping Heavenward is that rare gem, an utterly Christian book that does this well. Every young lady of 13 or more should read this book. Every married woman should read this book. It is so well written that we will all see something of ourselves, and we will be able to laugh a little, even while twisting uncomfortably in our chairs and blushing a bit over our sinful foibles.

Sometimes I have an opportunity to use literature to teach by example when the children ask me a question. Often their question leads to a discusssion which leads to a living idea. For example, one of our girls was eleven and reading Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist is the story of a poor child from an orphan's home and all the twists and turns in his life. At one point he is alone and starving in London. He is befriended by two characters called Fagin and the Artful Dodger. They bring him home, feed him, play games with him, and promise to do more for him later. Things seem to be looking up for the formerly friendless lad.

But my daughter came to me and said that she couldn't tell if Fagin and Artful were really Oliver's friends or not. Sometimes they seemed to be, and other times, she said, she just felt funny about them. She wanted me to tell her if they were truly Oliver's friends, or if he should be suspicious of them. Instead, I suggested that she continue to read, but to watch and think carefully about all they said and did. I explained that it was important to do this in real life as well - that sometimes those who first appear foul are really fair and those who appear fair are truly foul (to butcher a phrase from Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring).

She did as I suggested. She reached a very accurate judgment of the characters of Fagin and Artful Dodger very shortly.

A well-written book will have many ideas for the mind to feed upon. With such a banquet of ideas set before us, we may each bring away a different dish from any given book. In reading Oliver Twist, this child brought away the idea that sometimes people pretend to be friends for selfish purposes. When I first read it, I was struck by Dicken's message about the need for compassionate charity. Somebody else might focus on the issues of hypocrisy and false piety in the book.

It is valuable to recognize the power of literature to offer both good and bad examples, sometimes in the same character. Take Beowulf, for example (there is a wonderful children's version by H. E. Marshall, which I have read aloud to children as young as five). Beowulf is brave, and he is a loyal friend. Bravery features strongly in all the characters in this tale, but not all the characters make wise choices. It's good to know that one can be admirably brave and still make bad choices. It's important for children to understand that even otherwise reprehensible people can excel in raw physical courage. We tend to admire bravery, young children especially so - but they need to learn that raw courage is not enough, nor is great bravery always proof of great wisdom.

Another good lesson to learn is that love of country is not a substitute for character, nor for Christianity. I hope my daughters learned this when they read a biography of As Edith Cavell, who prior to her execution in WWI said, "Standing as I do in the view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

I mentioned earlier that I think the bad examples in books can be more useful than the good examples. I'm sure this raised some eyebrows in at least a few of my readers, and I'd like to explain more about I think that is. But it will have to keep for another post.

Horrible Warnings and Bad Examples: Why We Need Them

In a previous post I said that the bad examples in literature are at least as important as the good examples. I think this is particularly true for my children. In some ways, we live somewhat sheltered lives. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Some aspects of that are deliberate. Other aspects of that are consequences of other choices we've made for other reasons. We once lived in a town with a population of 299 - you don't get a broad range of human experience in such circumstances. Currently don't live in a town at all, but on a dirt road in the country. Our nearest neighbors are one mile away. We could not get television reception if we wanted it.

So, sometimes for deliberate reasons and sometimes as a side effect of our homestead lifestyle, our younger children are sheltered. I want to protect them, yet I also want to look ahead to a time where my children will be adults. Gradually, as they grow, they will have more responsibilities, just as their oldest siblings, now in their twenties, do.

I want to look ahead to a time when my sons in law will be able to trust their wives' wisdom, and my daughters will be aware enough of the world so that they can wisely do their families good and not evil. I want to look ahead to the time when my children will be interacting with other young adults in the world, or might be parents.

So I use books with characters who behave in less than admirable ways, who sin, who do wrong, who serve as bad examples and horrible warnings. While a smart person learns from his mistakes, a wise person learns from other people's mistakes. I'd like it best if my children can learn from the mistakes of characters in books, rather than from people who could really harm them physically or emotionally.

This surprises some of my Christian friends. Of course, I am not recommending gratuitously evil examples. But I do suggest that many Christians are too quick to dismiss valuable books because they expect their books, unlike real life, unlike the Bible, to have only well behaved, admirable human beings in them.

Some of us want books written like 19th century Victorian morality tales, where the boys who don't go to Sunday School come to sticky ends and lament their lack on their death beds. We think it's a good story, however badly it's written, if the maidens are so virtuous they faint rather than play a folk song on a Sunday. In these types of stories, the hardest questions rarely get asked, the solution to any problem is often so unrealistic that we ought to laugh at it rather than to admire it.

I lost my faith in these trite banalities quite young. When I was a child, our Sunday School had little moral Sunday papers with stories in them for us to take home and read during the week. I vividly remember one story about a nice, Christian child dealing with a bully at school by simply being sweet, and telling the bully about the love of Christ. The bully was immediately repentant and even grateful to the sweet Christian child. I tried it, and the bully's response was so unpleasant that I henceforth scorned those moral tales as snares and delusions.

Real life is not always so simplistic, and we do our children a disservice when we offer them books that pretend otherwise. It is not enough to write a trite and sticky-sweet tale where all the bad people come to a bad end and all the good people are rewarded, slap a Bible verse on it and call it Christian.

If we do our job teaching our children the great truths of the Bible, the themes found over and over in Proverbs and in the beatitudes, they will apply the morals they have learned to the stories they read. They will filter their reading through their moral compass.

It is true that we want to go gently with children and not overwhelm them with evil. Nor do we want to sear their consciences by injudicious exposure to wickedness. Hebrews 5:14 says that strong food is for the mature. But how do we become mature? The same verse explains that the mature are those who, because of practice, have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

Giving the children well written books to read is one way to give them material upon which to practice.

Children should be taught good habits of both action and thought from the cradle. Charlotte Mason believed that from their earliest moments children should be reminded of their place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that they were made for and must have God, and that they owed their Heavenly King much love and service. She taught that even our thoughts are not our own, but that we have a duty to think just thoughts of our neighbors just as much as we have a duty to deal justly in our actions. Parents who apply these principles will see their children employ what they have learned to judge their reading material.

It is my experience that children brought up already to have some idea of right and wrong in their own actions (and very few homeschooling parents fail to do at least this much) are able to judge right and wrong in their reading, even if it is not pointed out to them. Perhaps sometimes they judge even better under those circumstances.

A recent discussion of fairy tales prompted me to think further on this topic of children's judgment and the stories they read. I was a voracious reader of fairy tales at a certain point in my youth. I hadn't given much thought to whether I picked up any morals from them. I just loved the stories. But I started thinking about it, and tried to recall my childhood view of the stories. I realized that I had made judgments of right and wrong on my own, even when the story didn't make them. And on occasion, when the story did seem to point to a moral, I was perfectly able to disagree with it if it didn't line up with what I knew of right and wrong.

The Tinderbox is a good illustration of what I mean. For those of you not familiar with it, is the story of an out of work soldier who, in an Aladdin's Lamp type series of events, comes across a magic tinderbox. Striking the box 1, 2, or 3 times will bring one of three different dogs to him to do his bidding, and these are no ordinary dogs. One has eyes as big as saucers, one has eyes as big as dinner plates, and one has eyes as big as the clock in the bell tower. There's the usual princess in the story, and in the end, he of course, marries the princess.

It would appear that the soldier is the hero. However, although I always enjoyed the story, I never liked the hero. I didn't admire him, and never felt there was anything about him I'd want to emulate or want my own knight in shining armor, when he came, to imitate.

My daughter also loved fairy tales. When she was nine years old, I asked her if she'd read The Tinder Box and what she thought of it. Here's what she said:

"Oh, yes, I've read it so many times I'm sick of it! I like it, but I don't like the soldier. He starts off by cutting off the witch's head for not telling him why she wants the tinderboxes, and he doesn't know she's a witch!"

Yes, I agreed, that was what happened. "What," I asked her, "do you think about the soldier in the rest of the story?"

"Well, he does do some nice things. He gives a lot of money to poor people. But he bothers the princess and he makes his dogs bite the king and queen. Then he marries the princess and the story says they lived very happily."

She stopped there, but from the tone of her voice, it was clear that she didn't see how such a beginning managed to end in a happy marriage.

My daughter used her conscience and judgment to make her own decisions about the actions of the 'hero' of The Tinderbox and whether they were right or wrong. I was impressed with how well she did judge. I asked her if she thought he was a hero of the sort she would like to imitate, and received a resounding 'no!'

Charlotte Mason says that 'reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination . . . take care of themselves and play as naturally and involuntarily upon the knowledge we receive with attention and fix by narration as do the digestive organs upon duly masticated food-stuff for the body. We must feed the mind, as the body, fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one area in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain. It is an infinitely great thing, that mind of man, present in completeness and power in even the dullest of our pupils." (page 259 of Volume 6)

Real books are food for the mind. Stories told with vigor and imagination were the proper mind food for children - not distilled moral tales, bereft of any spark of life. The plot need not be realistic, but the characters should be lifelike and the writing should be well crafted. The children learn to deal with literature by being given literature - suitable to their age, and, at times, judiciously edited - but still literature. Given the proper food, the child's mind will act on it in the proper way, and the more of that proper food, the better the child's mind would be able to deal with stronger meat.

Fairy tales are not quite solid food, but they are a fit food for young minds to begin working on as they train themselves to distinguish good from evil by constant use of their moral sense.

~ Wendi Capehart, 2005

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