Books build character

character building

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.

You may also be interested in some of our other posts on Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts, grammar, composition, spelling, etc.

Part One
Part 2
Part Three

See also:
Books and Literature in The Common Room  (March 27, 2010)
Reading and Literature in The Common Room (March 20, 2010)

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