Literature and Moral Growth In Children

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With each lie Pinocchio told, his nose grew longer. By means of this physical retribution, the 19th-century story of a wooden puppet come to life suggested the consequences of prevarication.

Carlo Collodi's tale is probably not taught in many schools today: Most educators would consider it too old-fashioned and heavy-handed in its moralizing about Pinocchio's lies.

Yet in the volley of complaints being fired at schools, a common charge is that they are negligent in providing moral education--even that they are amoral.

And as politicians and preachers in the public eye attempt to cover their tracks with equivocations, our attention is focused on the lying and other moral shortcomings of those holding positions of leadership.

In the large body of children's literature that includes the story of Pinocchio, many resources can be found for fostering the moral growth of young people. To prepare children to think critically about ethical concerns, schools should emphasize the thoughtful reading of such literature.

With the current warfare between religious fundamentalists and civil libertarians over the issue of moral instruction in the classroom, it is hardly surprising that shellshocked administrators want to avoid any teaching of moral values that might result in a lawsuit or adverse publicity.

Yet at the same time, politicians are jumping into the fracas with calls for increased emphasis on moral education. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, for example, saying that schools must counter a "message of silence,'' has proposed revitalizing the teaching of values.

And U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has on several occasions stressed the importance of identifying and praising schools that effectively encourage the development of values.

Local community members are also launching offensives in the name of moral issues. Feeling powerless to confront public officials over their dissatisfaction with such problems as unemployment, homelessness, and teen-age pregnancy, they raise the battle cry for a "return to the teaching of moral standards.''

Unfortunately, various entrepreneurs are taking advantage of an unsettled climate by producing "programmed'' educational materials. Claiming nonprofit status, these firms appear eager to fill the presumed need for moral instruction.

But their programmed materials are educationally unsound. The content of these packages typically consists of short stories and parables designed to be presented by the teacher rather than read by the students. Accompanying discussion guides are aimed at involving children in simulations calling for moral decisions.

With their natural resistance to anything inauthentic, children perceive programmed materials on morality as contrived and phony. They close their minds to any attempts at moral instruction that seem manipulative or adult-centered.

Schools need not waste their money on such materials when they can draw on resources at hand to build successful programs of moral education and character development: The two essential ingredients are good books and good teachers.

Most schools already possess a balanced library of well-written children's books. Librarians can aid teachers and students with selection of appropriate texts.

Well-trained teachers, who understand the needs of students and who value literature, can identify appropriate books and develop creative critical-thinking activities based on them. Every time a story is read aloud or a novel discussed, such teachers are fostering moral education.

Recent research has shown the effectiveness of using literature and structured discussions of moral dilemmas to stimulate the growth of children's moral judgment.

Indeed, the value of literature in enriching the lives of children is manifold. Above all, books provide pleasure and insight. The narrative patterns of storytelling reflect an ordered way of life. And by imaginatively entering the fictional worlds created by talented authors, children come to perceive their own environment and other people in fresh ways.

Through the vicarious experiences reading offers, children can see and feel how others have lived, and understand how they have dealt with the universal questions of life.

And stories can become quests for self-discovery. Facing the conflicts and dilemmas posed by a given tale, the young reader postulates fundamental questions: "Who am I?'' "What is my place in the world?'' "How can I make this a better world?''

The moral questions that characters in books must resolve present the child with conflicts that might be replicated in real life. In the best of scenarios, the reader "becomes'' the character confronted with a moral problem.

If the decision made by the book's hero coincides with the values of the reader, those values are reinforced. If his judgment does not accord with the hero's, however, then the child must evaluate the character's action.

The objectivity required by such an exercise is not easy to maintain for a child with an inflexible code of ethics. But in all likelihood, the 8- or 9-year-old child will switch from considering consequences of behavior to evaluating a character's motives in deciding what was right or wrong behavior.

Literature should be valued by schools as a tool to involve children in decisionmaking situations where, without actual risk, they experiment with various positions in moral conflicts.

A fundamental goal of education is to enhance students' ability to analyze critically not only their own behavior but also that of others. While we remind ourselves, for instance, that we are all capable of telling lies, the more formidable task is to discern when others are lying to us. To help children develop character, we must ask them to judge others' characters.

We must prepare children to cope with living in a world of uncertainty--not to dissolve in cynical despair, but to function with a healthy sense of suspicion about what they see, hear, and read.

By reading about characters who lie, for example, children learn to evaluate the truthfulness of others. And they need not look far to discover that somebody might be speaking or acting deceitfully at any time, in any place: As the Secretary of Education pleads for character development in our schools, the shadow of duplicity falls over his colleagues in the White House.

"Truth'' has been identified by Lawrence Kohlberg as one of what he calls the "Ten Universal Moral Issues.'' But only when the child is capable of weighing others' claims against his own, of taking the role of others, can he make a moral judgment.

Universal values, Kohlberg warns, cannot be taught directly, but must be absorbed by interacting with adults and peers. The reading and sharing of literary experiences serves as a bridge for such involvement.

The child psychiatrist Robert Coles cautions that no amount of psychoanalysis can provide a strong conscience to one who has become chronically dishonest and mean-spirited. He also argues, however, that literature is more useful than psychiatry and the social sciences in coming to grips with complicated moral issues.

As a motif in contemporary children's literature, the theme of the lie exemplifies the possibilities of moral education. Motives for lying found in current books reflect all the complexity of the moral decisions adults must make: to evade responsibility, to escape punishment, to avoid confrontation, to hurt others, to shield others, and to avoid stress.

Thoughtful reading and discussion of such literature is crucial to any program of moral education.

Vol. 7, Issue 28, Page 36

Published in Print: April 6, 1988, as Literature and Moral Growth In Children
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