Morals? Absolutely! (2 of 2)

I have a four year old boy and a two year old girl. My son loves pirates and my daughter loves to dump water on the floor–at any given point of the day I feel like I am on the high seas (and usually it’s not in the role of the captain).

puzzlesPuzzles are an important part of my children’s lives. For my son, he prides himself on completing 40-piece floor puzzles with mom. My daughter? she prides herself on dumping as many puzzles on the floor as possible…all by herself.

This use to frustrate me.

Now, I do something that I defines me as a parent: I time myself putting the puzzles back together. These four puzzles took me 36 seconds! For those of you without kids–that’s pretty good. Trust me, it’s because I practice.

The last time I was training–I mean picking up–I was struck by something. A wooden cow. My daughter had learned that if she dumped the puzzle that daddy would gather all the pieces together and busily put them together again. Apparently, this brought her great joy.  My obsession with speed blinded me from the fact that I was missing a piece. Thankfully, my daughter helped remedy that.

I’s sure if you read the teaser from my last blog you are probably already onto the analogy that I am about to make. When it comes to puzzles, there’s a reason why two year olds start with the ones that have the shapes already cut out of them. If my daughter puts the ship puzzle piece into the ship cut-out on the board, I clap. If she does all 6 pieces of the puzzle I cheer and give her a hug. One piece for one shape–straightforward. This is special because my daughter is just learning the art of the puzzle. No one cheers when I finish; in fact, most of you are still getting over the fact that I time myself when I put multiple puzzles together. Don’t worry, I’m not offended.

Maybe it was the cow to the side of the head, but I started seeing a connection between puzzles and teaching children morals. As I touched on in the first instalment of this topic, there are situations in our adult lives that cloud our ability to make moral decisions. This isn’t to say that there is no foundation for moral decisions to be made–I believe there is–but decisions can be difficult even with these foundations. Sometimes, we make villains and enemies out of the ‘Other’ in order to justify our own decisions. Sometimes we are the villains.

My faith directs me to an understanding of humanity that is sinful, thus believing that all humanity is capable of villainy. So, when it comes to stories like “Flags of Our Fathers,” I appreciate the picture of a complex human nature. Unfortunately, if we try to communicate the moral complexities of our humanity to children before their moral foundations are laid, then I think we raise children who are morally ambiguous at best and morally bereft at worst.

This is why fairy tales can be such a helpful tool for teaching children morality. They serve as a kind of cutout wood puzzle. The hero and villain are defined and the virtues are often clear (although not always). Unfortunately, adults sometimes forgo these seemingly static stories in order to give their children a more complex view of the world.

Storytellers do this all the time. Writers subvert the roles of villain and hero to show depth of character and to provide suspense. One of the clearest pictures I can think of is with the movie “Shrek.” The writers take an ogre, traditionally endowed with all the nasty traits of fairy tales, and make him the hero of the story. This is great storytelling in my opinion, but one of the reasons the subversion works so well is because it plays off of a foundational understanding that ogres are bad.

The child physiologist Bruno Bettleheim writes about danger teaching children moral ambivalence before having a solid moral foundation:

“Ambiguities must wait until a relatively firm personality has been established on the basis of positive identifications. Then the child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be.”

Likewise, Vigen Guroian in his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, writes

“Children need guidance and moral road maps and they benefit immensely with the example of adults who speak truthfully and act from moral strength.”

Children need to “see” what a world of goodness looks like, and then see the negative affects of our actions (sin) within that world. The enchantment of fantasy is that it draws its readers into a world of “what if” where children can safely see archetypes of good and evil, read about their virtues or lack of, and then use those lessons to build their own moral foundations.

In his book Education of Character, Martin Burber recalls an anecdote from one of his early teaching experiences in University.

“[I tried] to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightening happened: the worst habitual liar of the class produced a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying…Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination.” 

Burber, like numerous others, argue that fairy tales offer a safe environment to explore the positive and negative examples needed in moral development. It is much safer (and I would also argue much more affective) to have a child read “Snow White” and say, “the step-mother is wicked because she has allowed jealousy to rule her” than to point to your neighbour who just purchased a new boat and say, “see, he is evil.” Children who are steeped in fairy tales learn to recognize the evil ogre in their neighbours (and hopefully themselves) without claiming that their neighbours are wholly ogres. Likewise, children who read “The Goose Girl” will be able to recognize humility and hopefully be able to recognize that virtue in their neighbours as well.

In the end, children who are not trained will learn a self-serving type of morality. This is no task for the human nature. But a child with strong moral formations (inward beliefs) will undoubtedly have a greater chance of recognizing and exhibiting virtues (outward actions from beliefs) that show an imbued sense of love for his or her neighbour.

And if not, maybe we need a little more practice with the beginners puzzles.


Artwork by Terra Grasser

A light read about fairy tales and villains: 






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