Thursday, October 22, 2015

What's So Important About Your Child's Imagination?

I was a guest this week on the Catholic Exchange podcast talking about why reading good books with our kids is so important. And as I was babbling on and on about how awesome books are for growing our children's moral imaginations I didn't stop to realize if I had built up a decent basis on why and how books do this.

I mean, what does it all really mean, man?!

When we talk about the child's moral imagination we're talking about how our children learn about what morals are all about and what makes them good and bad. What happens when we do things that are good? What happens when we do things that are bad? These are the basis of what morality means in real life - our choices and actions have consequences.

Now, this happens really simply and usually in a very straightforward way in fairy tales and other children's stories. The prince does something heroic through courage and self-sacrifice to save a princess or slay a dragon that's been terrifying the populace. The princess through perseverance, intelligence, and kindness falls in love and marries a prince. Characters who trick other characters or are obviously cruel meet with deathly consequences.

In other words, when people do things that are good, good things happen to them and when characters do bad things, bad things happen to them.

If we're trying to raise children who have well-formed consciences you can see why this beginning instruction in morality is so important. It matters whether or not they're beginning to understand morality as it plays out through cartoon episodes or quality fairy tales and books.

Fairy tales and quality children's literature is that first step through the wardrobe of what matters in a world outside of our own selves. Children come to know the world in small incremental steps beginning with their home and family, and stories and books are a natural way to begin understanding how the world works, and especially how the moral world works.

The stories may be simple especially to our modern, relativism-obsessed culture, but to children fairy tales make logical sense. As we're raising our kids from small toddlers on we are all about trying to get them to draw conclusions from their own behaviour and consequences, if a child misbehaves we want them to begin to expect and understand that a negative consequence will happen. We want to enforce positive behaviour with praise and exuberance.

So it's really a logical and simple connection to our children that a bad witch who wants to throw innocent children into an oven is herself tossed into an oven. They begin to understand and expect certain types of choices and behaviours to be rewarded or punished through these tales. They're making moral connections between actions and consequences - that's really an huge step towards understanding what morality is all about.

And the same happens when we expose children to great characters of virtue. When we read tales of heroes and princesses we're not just exposing them to a world that is some kind of parallel universe, but a world in which people who do good things through making good decisions are met with good ends.

I don't think it means that our children are expecting fantastical things to happen to them, but it does open their minds to the idea that by pursuing the good great things can happen. We want our children to grow up with the knowledge and belief that God wants great things for their lives and wants them to live heroically in our world today. We want them to believe that good does always conquer evil because that is our Christian belief.

Of course that may involve slaying dragons - doing incredibly difficult things in challenging circumstances and persevering when all hope is lost. It may involve a supernatural charity towards people just life a wicked stepmother who keeps a princess locked in a tower.

Through stories children begin to imagine possibilities when they haven't yet experienced them first hand. Possibilities like overcoming extremely difficult and challenging situations in order to pursue the good, having to make difficult choices, being faced with evil and yet knowing that goodness exists and needs to be fought for, as well as being open to whatever incredible plan for their lives God may have in store.

That's why the imagination and cultivating the imagination is important. Not so our children become enamoured with a fairy tale vision of the world, but that they will be equipped to have a moral understanding of our world and how to use their own virtues for good. We're preparing them to understand the importance of morality and spirituality in a world that relegates all goodness and evil to a limp relativity.

It's hard for our small children to understand that a mom who stays home, or parents who both go to Mass, or a parent willing to take a public stand at their workplace against euthanasia or same-sex marriage are acting with courage and bravery. It's hard for our children to see us being extraordinarily kind to the person in the grocery store who asks if all those little people really are yours. But it's easy for them to see that when a prince fights a dragon that there is bravery and courage involved, and that persevering in kindness when you're a princess locked in a tower really does earn just rewards.

That's why the moral imagination begins young, with the stories our kids are exposed to and how their little minds absorb them with excitement and relish. And it's in hopes that as they grow they can make those important connections to virtue and vice, the possibilities of God working in their own lives, and of the rich reward that awaits us in heaven.

follow along:

facebook ~ instagram ~ pinterest


  1. This post is so excellent!!! THANK YOU for defending fairy tales! I've heard too many remarks lately about how we are setting up our kids to expect happy endings all the time, but the huge point all these critics are missing is the fact that good overcomes evil. They are not about princesses needing to be dependent upon a Prince Charming, but rather about being resilient and persevering through difficulty. You articulated it beautifully.

    1. Thanks Kimberly! I think it's overly simplistic to think that kids will think and learn to expect only happy endings from fairy tales. They get so much more from them, and the fact that they end logically - good guys get good things, bad guys get bad ends, doesn't speak to a culture without faith.

  2. Thank you! I just finished my last ever "Confessions of Shopaholic" novel with such a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn't get over the feeling that the new grown-up fairy tale is that a woman can be a selfish, stunted, horrible human being who never really grows or learns, and will somehow snag a wonderfully good, kind, upright, multimillionaire husband who continues to truly and deeply love her through it all. Why? On what ground is this affection built? :-p As the story progressed I kept getting sicker at heart and thinking "I like Cinderella better. At least those girls 'got the prince' because they were good people." It's true that it's not "about" gender roles or blood and death or whatever. It's about encouraging an imagination that mirrors what our conscience is supposed to tell us. (I love your encouragement to comment like "we're having a coffee." I was feeling shy about leaving a comment, but I saw that and couldn't resist!)

    1. Yeah, you're right Tara! So much contemporary literature misses the point where good stories depict characters that actually grow, and change, not just live an unfulfilling life yet get what they want anyway. There's so much moral value in the tried and true tales.
      Thanks for commenting, so glad you read it and took the time to leave a note!

  3. This is a great post!! I've just starting bringing home fairy tales from the library (it is so hard to find decent picture books at our library!!) and reading them to my three-year-old. He listens, and while I'm not sure how much of the story he's taking in, it's never to early to build that moral imagination, right?
    P.S. I love listening to your podcast!

  4. Agree! Have you read Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination? Vigen Guroian talks about fairy tales but also classics like The Princess and the Goblin and The Jungle Books.

  5. Agree! Have you read Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination? Vigen Guroian talks about fairy tales but also classics like The Princess and the Goblin and The Jungle Books.


Imagine we're having a coffee together and let me know what you think --
I love comments almost as much as coffee!

(And please check to make sure your email address is connected to your profile, I'd love to email you a reply.)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...