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Literature as a Character Building Tool

This page is an attempt to explain why we are compiling a list of books that build character, and presents some of the benefits of using literature as a character-building tool. Before we get into the specific benefits of literature, however, we would like to say a little concerning the need for character training.

Character Training

As Christian parents raising our children, we have a dual goal. We want to prepare our children to receive the Lord, and we want to train them to be proper human beings so that they can be useful to the Lord. We prepare our children to receive the Lord firstly by infusing them with a knowledge of God and His word, and by educating their conscience with the law, which is a child conductor to bring them to Christ (Gal. 3:24). We train our children to be proper human beings by molding their character and teaching them what is proper behavior. This is the transmission of our cultural values to our children.

Essential to both of these goals is the matter of character training. Without the knowledge of the law (an essential element in character training), it is hard for children to be convicted of sin and thoroughly saved. Furthermore, without a proper character, the children will not be equipped to pursue or serve the Lord after being saved. Brother Witness Lee in his book, Character, says that “A person’s usefulness, the things which can be entrusted to him, the responsibilities he can bear, and the things he is able to accomplish altogether depend on his character....The destiny of our usefulness to the Lord hinges on our character” (Character, p. 17). If our children are sloppy, how can they understand God's Word? If they lack self-discipline, will they be able to pay the price to follow and serve the Lord? If they cannot get along with others, will they be able to bring people the gospel? By training our children to have a proper character, we equip them to be useful vessels to serve the Lord in their adult life. Furthermore, by training their character, we preserve our children until they are able to live by Christ.

The Need for Culture

In the Life-Study of Colossians, Message 40, p. 346, Witness Lee says, “Children must be raised according to certain cultural standards....Children need culture until they are old enough to experience Christ and live by Him. Anyone who has not received Christ must have culture in order to live properly. Today's society needs culture. The more cultured people are, the less they need to be controlled by the police or by the law court.” In Message 49, pp. 425–426 of the same book, he continues:

     Children must be raised according to the standards of culture....The more the children are trained according to culture, the better it will be for them. The children must be trained to honor their parents, to love their brothers and sisters, to behave properly toward their neighbors, to be good students in school, to obey all laws, and to respect their teachers and other adults....

      The use of culture can be compared to the function of the law in the Scriptures. The law was decreed by God. Romans 7:12 says that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” Used rightly, the law kept God's chosen people in custody until the coming of Christ....Children need to be preserved by culture while they are growing up.

Character training will make our children strong human beings until they are called by the Lord, and after they are called will enable them to follow the Lord in a strong way.

The Function of the Law

To prepare our children for salvation, we need to educate their conscience through the giving of the law (Gal. 3:24). This is also what we do to train their character toward virtuous human living--we educate their conscience regarding what is proper, virtuous behavior. Both for developing character and for bringing our children to salvation, we need to give them the law, to educate their conscience regarding what is right and wrong. We want to raise our children with the highest standard of human living. A life according to the highest standard is a virtuous life, a life that is not only good, righteous, just, faithful, honest, responsible, considerate, compassionate, and caring, but also a life that is courageous and strong, a life that sets goals and works hard to achieve them.

The classical definition of virtue is that it is a moral strength, the ability to do what is right in a particular situation because one is practiced in behaving that way. Thus, to have a virtue is different from having a particular value. One may know that it is wrong to lie, but whether or not one will be able to tell the truth in a situation where it is costly to do so depends on whether one has a practice or habit of being honest in every situation.

In order to practice what is right, children firstly need to be told what is right; they cannot be expected to “discover” on their own. In schools today children are told to choose their own values; to behave however they “feel” is right. This system of “values clarification” is absolutely wrong and against God's principle in the Bible. God did not tell the children of Israel to consider various complicated moral situations and then “decide for themselves” what they felt was right or wrong! He gave them very clear, detailed instructions in the law. Children in the same way need to be taught what is virtuous, and they need to be told what is right and wrong.

The law of God is a description of a life with the highest virtue. When we give children the law, their conscience is educated. The word “conscience” in its root means “with knowledge.” Some young people in the United States can commit horrible crimes and still have no feeling because they have no knowledge of what is right; their conscience is not educated. However, when the conscience is educated, it can function properly. Even though children with an educated conscience will still do wrong, yet their conscience will function to convict them. This helps them to have a proper humanity and it helps to lead them to Christ.

Children need character training, which depends largely on the education of their conscience with the law of God and the values of a proper human culture. Now with this brief introduction as background, let us go on to consider how good literature can help reinforce what we do with the children.

The Function of Good Literature

Good literature can be used to teach and to reinforce the values we want to transmit to our children. Good literature (in this context) is literature that, in story form, transmits to our children the same virtues as the Word of God. Good literature is an extremely useful tool in character education because good literature forms mental images in our minds that remain with us. We learn much better from pictures than from precepts; we learn much better from examples than from teachings. God teaches us in this way--the whole Old Testament is a book of pictures. And how many times has a simple illustration given in a message helped to make a certain truth from the Word come alive for us?

Good literature helps transmit proper values. Children need to be taught what is right, and literature does that teaching in a pleasurable way. Books also allow for frequent repetition of values we are trying to teach. In order to be learned, virtues need to be taught over and over again. Good books allow that to happen without boring the children.

Children learn by example. They learn by imitating the persons and the behaviors that they admire; that is why most children end up very much like their parents. Brother Witness Lee says in the Life-study of Ephesians, Message 62, p. 521: “As parents, we must do our duty with respect to our children. This means that we should not only teach them, but also set up an example for them to follow. Just as the Lord Jesus sanctified Himself for the sake of His disciples (John 17:19), so parents should sanctify themselves for the sake of their children....Children always imitate their parents. Therefore, it is the parents' responsibility to set up a high standard and a proper pattern and example for their children to follow.” Good literature can supplement our own good examples by giving children an abundance of proper role models. Sometimes literature can make an even stronger impression on the children than we can, because children readily identify with the characters in a story. There is a God-given humanity in all of our children which responds to the positive examples found in good books. Good literature makes children love the good (Rom. 7:21a, 22), because when they read about virtuous living, their God-given humanity responds, “I want to be like that.” When they see good, children love to do good. This strengthens their conscience.

By reading good literature, the children make new heroes; they pick out the behaviors that are admirable and will eventually try to imitate them. All children live their lives trying to emulate their heroes. Unfortunately, the common heroes today are sports players or actors, many of whom are not virtuous persons that we want our children to emulate. You cannot tell children not to emulate those people; they have a need for role models. However, with good literature you can increase the availability of positive examples. children’s identification with characters in a story is even stronger than their identification with modern figures, because in reading a book children are drawn into the story.

In chapter 7 of his book, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, Professor William Kilpatrick makes a case for literature as a primary tool in character education. He says, “One way to counter moral illiteracy is to acquaint youngsters with stories and histories that can give them a common reference point and supply them with a stock of good examples.” Professor Kilpatrick quotes a speech made by William Bennett at the Manhattan Institute:

     Do we want our children to know what honesty means? Then we might teach them about Abe Lincoln walking three miles to return six cents and, conversely, about Aesop's shepherd boy who cried wolf.

      Do we want our children to know what courage means? Then we might teach them about Joan of Arc, Horatius at the Bridge, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

      Do we want them to know about kindness and compassion, and their opposites? Then they should read A Christmas Carol and The Diary of Anne Frank, and, later on, King Lear.

We should point out here that good literature does not always teach through positive examples. Children also learn by seeing what wrong behavior is. Many times they learn from the mistakes of the characters in the stories. Furthermore, by seeing the story characters overcome their mistakes and failures, children learn to overcome failures and go on.

Good literature can do more than transmit values--it can also help develop virtue, because literature allows children to rehearse moral decisions. You may tell children that they should choose to do the right thing in a certain kind of situation, e.g., that they should not give in to peer pressure, yet without experience they may cave in when the time comes. However, reading a story about someone else who makes the right choice in such a situation helps children to rehearse for themselves what they will do. By reading the story, they have vicariously lived through such a situation and experienced making the right choice. Good literature helps children to rehearse right moral decisions long before they ever make them.

Good literature is also broadening. By identifying with the characters in the stories, children learn to develop empathy for others and are drawn out of their self-centeredness. Good literature opens windows into the lives of people whose situations are very different from our own. Literature teaches children to appreciate others and not to judge people too hastily. Good literature broadens the children’s view of the world and inspires children to do greater things with their lives.

Cautions Regarding Literature

Any book may include things that we do not agree with or that we do not want taught to our children. For this reason, we urge parents to review the books on this list (and any books) before passing them on to the children. Many secular books put other religions on the same level as Christianity, or speak from the point of view of other religious beliefs. Some books may introduce ideas that we do not agree with, such as fantasy, fairies, goblins, mythology, etc. Books may also bring up issues that we do not want our children exposed to prematurely (Some books are good for high schoolers to read, but would be very inappropriate for elementary children). Even Christian literature, though a tremendous resource for character building, may sometimes speak from the point of view of religious concepts we do not agree with, such as Sabbath keeping, going to heaven after you die, celebrating Christmas and Easter, and the clergy-laity system, or it may try to equate proper human behavior with our relationship with God, thus confusing human culture with spirituality.

However, as long as the things are not sinful, it is not necessarily bad for the children to encounter them in a story. It is much better for the parents to address these issues at home with the children than for the children to encounter things on their own without the parents around for guidance. This way, they can find out exactly how we feel about these issues. (By the time we were 8 or 9 years old, we knew exactly how our parents felt about many issues, and we learned to like the kinds of books they liked and to dislike the kinds of books they disliked.) Allowing our children to be exposed to some things with our guidance available also helps them to be broadminded. Children need to learn to understand and accept people with beliefs, practices, and standards which differ from our own, while at the same time not embracing others' standards.

Recently a number of publishers have been reprinting quality Christian literature from the previous century. These books can be a great resource to use with the children, especially some of the character story anthologies.

How to Use this Book List

It is extremely difficult to compile a list of good books to use for character development for two reasons. The first reason is that everyone has their own taste and view regarding what is appropriate for their children to read. Hence, be advised: not every book on this list is necessarily appropriate for your child. Please review the books before giving them to your children. Please also do not be offended by a book being included or omitted from this list.

The second reason it is difficult to compile such a list is that there are so many good books to choose from! This list is by no means exhaustive, and we welcome any suggestions or contributions to our list. (Please email us.) The books on this list have been chosen because they exemplify the virtues we want to inculcate in our children, such as hard work, honesty, courage, compassion, fairness, etc., or because they have a lesson to teach. However, all of these books are also good stories, good literature, or they would not be on the list.

While compiling the list, we discovered that there are many books which do not have a specific lesson or moral to teach, but which provide positive examples of hard-working, honest people living a proper family life in the context of a proper culture. An example of this kind of book would be the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. Many books of of this kind were included on our first booklist, “Books We Enjoyed As Kids,” and some of the more outstanding ones are also included here.

Another invaluable resource for providing positive role models for our children is well-written biographies of great men and women. There are a few on our list, and surely hundreds more that we have not discovered yet. Again, please feel free to email us with any suggestions.

How to use the books on this list? The stories speak for themselves without any need of interpretation. It is not necessary to point out the morals in any of the stories. Just read and enjoy!

Again in this list, we categorized the books by reading level: Beginning readers, elementary readers, intermediate readers, and advanced readers. However, all the books should be enjoyable to older readers. At the end of the list is a section of recommended anthologies, both secular and Christian.

Click here to see our list, Books that Build Character.

References for further reading

  • Lee, Witness, Character, Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1987.
  • Trumbull, H. Clay, Hints on Child Training, Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989 (a reprint of the book originally published in 1890).
  • Bennett, William, The Book of Virtues, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993 (the introduction is worth reading if you have access to a copy of the book).
  • Kilpatrick, William, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992 (especially the latter part of the book).
  • Smith, Charles A., Ph.D., From Wonder to Wisdom: Using Stories to Help Children Grow, New York: NAL Books (Penguin Books, Inc.), 1989.

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