On morals in children’s books

In addition to books we are reading individually, I like the idea of having something we are reading aloud together. Over the years, we’ve had some very memorable experiences reading aloud. The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite, as well as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and more recently Peter Pan.

Currently, our read aloud book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women is interesting in that the morality and lessons to be learned from the daughters’ struggles are laid bare; often complete with a sermonette from their mother.  I myself am not particularly fond of what is known as “preachy” entertainment, but in this book, I have determined that the detours are a net advantage to the story. I and my children rather enjoy the brief, overt moments in the book which extol virtue, but not everyone does.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to muse on this issue of “preachy” or overt morality presented in children’s books as writers far more articulate than me have tackled the subject. First, Krysta at Pages Unbound makes the very astute point that despite any protestations, most people do prefer children’s books with moral. Indeed, the problem most people have with the older children’s books is not that they are overtly moral, but that the morals presented are out of step with our postmodern sensibilities and current morality.

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

She is absolutely correct. In fact, our moral lessons of today actively discourage cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic if those virtues in any way conflict with our ability to be a confident individual. Hence, it’s not particularly hard to see why Little Women’s overt moral lessons might be offensive to contemporary readers.

Additionally, there is the presumption that Marmee, the mother of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers her lessons and sermonettes in a way that is unrealistic or stilted. I find the assertion curious as it is not at all unusual in our home for events to evolve into teaching lessons complete with reminders of what our faith and the rules of our family demand. Our children seem to connect with, enjoy, and be enriched by those moments. we do our kids a disservice when we project our hardened resistance to being influenced to a higher standard onto them. The teachable, open hearts of children are much more receptive to such messages than adults tend to be.

In addition to Krysta’s post, there is another well presented argument in defense of preachy children’s books by Lindsay Brigham Knott at Circe Institute. One of the thoughts she offered is our error in presuming that children’s books are to be read solely for entertainment in the first place:

As near as I can tell, the arguments against preachy children’s stories range from shallow to significant. On the shallow end is the argument that children will, by nature, “tune out” anything that smacks of a sermon. The following excerpt (again, compliments of Google) typifies this argument:

Adults patronize kids almost all day, so as an adult ourselves, it is too easy to make this mistake. The key here is to make your point without going too preachy or didactic. Nothing can turn children off faster than a lecture, or worse, a moral lesson. Kids want to be entertained and delighted. The first thing you can do is erase the words moral, teach, message, and lesson out of your vocabulary. Instead, trust your readers to figure it out through the storyline and actions that your characters take. Another tip is to keep authoritative figures, like parents, teachers, or older siblings, in the background. Lastly, never let the adults in the story tell what the main character should do. Remember, it is a sin to preach in fiction.

I shall let that argument stand for itself, and not belabor a rebuttal; anyone already committed to classical education likely does not need to be convinced that kids’ desire for entertainment should not determine the content of their reading, nor that authoritative figures ought to be honored rather than stuffed in the closet.

Over the course of the recently ended school year, our 11-year-old, in her fulfilled assignment of writing a short story, was admonished by her teacher that her story didn’t direct the reader to draw a conclusion with regard to the behavior of her characters. Because I was stuck on my concern that it sounded so much like a Disney movie, that particular aspect of her presentation eluded me.

Rather than ask her what she wanted to convey, I read the story again, and again was struck with the notion that the problems inherent in the behavior of the characters was evident because of the troubles their decisions wrought. The fact that there was no overarching, ultimate consequence could certainly be perceived as problematic.

However, on the heels of having read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which was also very matter of fact in its presentation of behavior and consequences, I was prepared to accept my daughter’s presentation as valid. What to do about the canned plot development is another issue.

It left me wondering what positions others general have when it comes to presenting morality and life lessons in children’s books.

What say you?





8 thoughts on “On morals in children’s books

  1. hearthie says:

    I don’t know that the kids ever much minded a moral to their stories either. Although I couldn’t get them as into reading Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories as I was…

    But they’re my kids, so they get enthused and explained at quite a lot. Again, they don’t seem to mind so long as I’m not repeating myself on the same subject. If I speak to where they are, they’re appreciative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Krysta says:

    I wonder if the directive that adult figures shouldn’t be present in the story/shouldn’t tell the main character how to act doesn’t inadvertently exclude characters of faith from appearing in stories. For instance, in Ms. Marvel, Kamala, when faced with ethical dilemmas, will sometimes turn to her faith leader. Sometimes her mother will figure out something is up and offer words of advice. In this case, the adult figures passing on wisdom are often helping Kamala to interpret her ethical responsibility as seen through the lens of her religion. But how could you show a character like Kamala living out her faith if the writer insists she has to figure out everything on her own?

    Even in a story without a character of faith, this directive is troublesome. Should we not have characters with good familial relationships? Should children’s books only depict adults as ignorant, uncaring, or unhelpful? How is that realistic? Doesn’t that exclude a bunch of children who have caring adults in their lives from seeing themselves in books? And isn’t it problematic that an adult perspective will always be lacking in children’s literature, as if someone’s perspective on life is irrelevant once they’ve passed a certain age? I am truly baffled by that advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elspeth says:

    I don’t know that the kids ever much minded a moral to their stories either.

    My kids certainly don’t.

    But they’re my kids, so they get enthused and explained at quite a lot.

    There’s that too. But you know, I was just telling my kids the other day -we were having a family discussion about the importance of prayer- something my father used to say. Namely (and I can almost hear his voice even now): “You prepare for war during times of peace”.

    I could almost instantly see light bulbs come on inside them. And this included the older ones as well!

    I don’t know this mindset that insists that children don’t want to be told what to do. In fact, that is exactly what they want. They are fairly well lost without that. And angry, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    Good afternoon Krysta!

    The illusion of sovereignty and personal autonomy -all on our own terms- is very heavily ingrained in our current social and cultural climate. The idea is that good familial relationship consist of parents/teachers/spiritual advisors who are heavily involved but don’t interfere.

    It’s cognitively dissonant, of course, but individuality as a core value usually does involve heavy bits of cognitive dissonance.

    Children, being impressionable, need the help and instruction of those with accumulated years of wisdom. There are times when our 23-year-old daughter offers invaluable wisdom to our 10-year-old daughter.

    We are not meant to figure things out on our own. And frankly, I’d rather learn that the stove is hot from having you burn your hand and tell me about than from burning my own hand. I scar easily.


  5. Krysta says:

    I love how you put that! We do seem to WANT to have active adult figures/role models, but simultaneously we want them out of the way! It is rather contradictory! But I think you’re right! Older people can help younger people immensely. And I think younger people often recognize that. They are maybe not as resistant to authority figures and to advice as writers may think. In fact, I think most children WANT to know there is an adult on their side, one they can turn to. No one really wants to be, say, Harry Potter, trying to figure out life all on his own, even if he makes for a good story.


  6. Bike Bubba says:

    I’m reminded of the most damning thing I’ve ever read about the Harry Potter books. The critic, a friend of mine who used to head Central Baptist Theological Seminary up in the Twin Cities, didn’t waste time worrying about the presence of witchcraft or the presentation of good and evil. What he pointed out was that the books really had no bigger story than Harry Potter–there was, so to speak, no metanarrative.

    Now the “moral of the story” can be either elegant or ham-handed, but if there is no moral to the story, we are left, more or less, in the middle of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with no real reason to participate. Nothing better to do than to light up a joint.

    Not that there aren’t reasons to avoid ham-handed moralism, but tofu-stomached amoralism is probably an even bigger hazard.

    Liked by 2 people

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