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Topic: Spiritual Formation

The Formative Power of Stories

March 4, 2014

by Candice Watters

Recently I came across an article I wrote when our 14-year-old son was four. In it, I recounted a trip to the post office where he introduced himself to a little girl near his own age. “Within five minutes of meeting,” I wrote, “he was kissing her and inviting her over to play. An extrovert from early on, it was time for him to learn some social boundaries.”

Though I’d forgotten this incident, I do remember the book I grabbed in an effort to teach him a lesson. I reasoned a story would do more to shape his character than simply telling him he shouldn’t kiss strangers, though I did do that, too. So we stopped by the library on our way home to borrow The Gingerbread Man, and settled into our cozy reading chair for some classic story time.

Together we read about the energetic, rebellious cookie who ran away from home, stopping only to trust the conniving hungry fox. Though not a perfect analogy–little girls in the post office are hardly a threat to one’s safety–my hope was that the story would help him develop a healthy distrust of strangers.

As the story goes, the gingerbread man accepts a fox’s offer to ferry him across the river in order to escape the farmer, the farmer’s wife and all their farm animals running after him. Nearing the end of his ride on the fox’s back, the little cookie trusts the fox one more time, moving up to his snout to avoid getting wet. And true to form, the fox throws his head back, opens his jaws and swallows the cookie whole. Not wet, eaten! Betrayal!

Just when I hoped our son was catching the point, I noticed we weren’t at the end of this version of the story. Not yet. I turned the page and there it was, the words that qualified this book as a “retelling” for modern ears:

But don’t be sad, for that wasn’t the end of the gingerbread man.

The gingerbread man has gone away,
But he’ll be back some other day.
For gingerbread men return, it’s said.
When someone bakes some gingerbread.

In other words, it’s OK that the cookie trusted the wily fox because gingerbread rejuvenates itself every time the farmer’s wife bakes cookies.

Not only did the fox betray the cookie, but the book betrayed me!

I wanted our son to ask hard questions like, “What happened to the gingerbread man?” “How will he get out of the fox’s mouth?” “Why did the fox eat him?” My whole reason for choosing this story was to gently, yet memorably, show my son the need for caution when dealing with people you’ve just met. I wanted him to understand that trust is something you must earn, and giving it prematurely is dangerous.

Whoever published this book wanted to blunt the edges. But in doing so, he silenced the tough questions; questions best asked and answered in the safety of conversations with Mom and Dad, before facing real conversations in real life with real strangers.

When I reached for The Boy Who Cried Wolf a few weeks later to illustrate the importance of telling the truth, I got an unabridged original.

It was challenging to explain to our 4-year-old what happened to the little boy when the wolf really showed up and no one came to his rescue. But if it’s possible to teach honesty by reading a story that involves the demise of a naughty trickster, how much better than having to experience that pain firsthand.

Some parents argue life’s scary enough without reading fanciful tales of woe. I understand their concerns. I certainly don’t want to introduce nightmares, filling my kids’ heads with endless warnings of what bad things might happen. But I do want them to understand human nature and develop wisdom.

From Genesis 4 onward, Scripture is full of stories of deadly peril and consequences. Each episode of murder, adultery, war and worse is evidence that what God said–“for in the day that you eat of [the tree] you shall surely die”–was in fact true. What makes these stories so formative for consciences young and old is that they show the ugliness of sin and the beauty of obedience. Unlike much of what passes for children’s and teen literature in the modern age, Scripture never glorifies gore or glamorizes sin. Nor does it whitewash it, falsely suggesting that no matter what mischief one gets into, everything will work out “happily every after.”

We don’t truly know the goodness of the Good News, if we’re not honest about the badness of the bad news. There are no Curious George endings in the Bible. Speaking of the scenarios in the Old Testament, Paul reminds us “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Reading is one of the best things you can do for developing your children’s moral imagination. But what you read matters. Choose wisely.

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