Horrible Warnings & Bad Examples: Why We Need Them

horrible warninghorrible warningThis is Books and Character, Part The Third.

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 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 becaues 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 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 beattitudes, 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 judgement 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 judgements 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.

Pipsqueak also loved fairy tales. When she was nine years old 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 witches 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 judgement 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 knoweldge 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.

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)

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

This entry was posted in Books, Charlotte Mason. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. Jenny
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Posted February 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    You said it. Thank you.

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