In our culture of high-speed Internet, cut-away video and rapid sound bites, it's not easy to get kids to sit still for more than a few minutes. But pull out a storybook and even the biggest kid will curl up next to you on the sofa.
Stories are a powerful way to connect with kids. They're used to pass down a family's faith from one generation to the next. They're used to teach morals and values. And sometimes, they're just plain fun.
William Bennett knows the power of a story. The former United States Secretary of Education, Bennett recently released The Child's Book of Faith (Random House), a collection of his favorite inspirational stories. The book is a mix of Bible stories, fables, and historical tales, all with one common theme: building a child's faith. The author of The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass (both from Simon & Schuster), Bennett knows the importance of strong faith. His books have played a major role in bringing about the current interest in instilling character in children. He currently serves as co-director of Empower America, an organization devoted in part to rebuilding the moral and educational foundation of this country. We recently sat down with Bennett in his Washington, D.C. office to talk about the value of storytelling.
CPT: Why are you drawn to stories as a teaching tool?
Bennett: Believe it or not, the story is really a very theological tool. God created us as very imaginative creatures. When we read the Bible we read a story. The Incarnation is a story: the Word made flesh. The story of Christ is the greatest story ever told. It's not a matter of coincidence that stories work for us.
A story is life made palpable. We talk about words coming to life, but what really happens is that words give life to life. We can better understand and deal with life when we see it in story form. We live in space and time, and our lives are narratives. And what's the most important part of that narrative? It's that climactic moment in our lives when we come to recognize our Creator.
As a dad, I also know that there's magic to the phrase "Once upon a time." If you can then follow up with something that will keep a child's attention and teach them something valuable along the way, you have a successful story.
Jesus told stories to get his point across. Our ancestors told stories to pass on a family's history. Filmmakers use stories to entertain and enlighten. Storytelling still works today.
How did you determine which stories you'd share in this book?
These stories are a real mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I used stories that have encouraged me, inspired me, touched me. I tried to find things I remember from my own childhood and stories I remember telling my sons, stories that resonated with them and changed their lives. Most importantly, I included stories that echo Christian faith and beliefs and morals, stories that teach truths that we can pass on to future generations.
Some of these stories are pretty deep. How old does a child need to be before he or she can grasp the real meaning of stories like this?
The book is generally aimed at children in the 4- to 9-year-old range, but older children will like these stories, too. I have an 11-year-old and a 16-year old and I've tried out an awful lot of my stories on them. I can tell which ones work and which ones don't just by the way they react. I really wanted this book to be used by families: moms, dads and kids of every age. It's illustrated and designed so that a child of virtually any age will be drawn to the colors and the beauty of the pages, and eventually to the deeper meanings of the stories themselves.
You've also expanded the definition of "faith" stories to go beyond Bible stories. Some are patriotic; some are fables. What's the glue that binds them together to make them faith-related?
We're trying to help parents build faith in their children and in doing so, we've chosen a variety of genres, choosing highly imaginative, unusual stories as well as some classic tales. Some of the stories in this book are fiction; others are true. But every story in the book is true in the most important sense: They are all morally true. And that's where a child's faith rests: in the morals and virtues laid down by his parents. If we can teach our kids about these morals and principles at an early age, we've won half the battle.
How did stories like these influence your own life?
I was raised on good, hard virtue. I came from a broken home, and my mother was divorced many times. But I always attended Catholic schools and learned about goodness, doctrine and, again, virtue. I learned to work hard. When I come upon a single mother or an inner-city family just barely making ends meet, I want to tell them, "You can do this." Remember, with a good moral foundation and a strong faith, today's kids can make it; they can survive.
You've made a second career out of passing on these morality tales. Clearly, parents want and need this kind of help. What are you hoping to do for families with these books?
I want to help parents remember that defilement comes from within. Nothing external can defile you. We live in a fallen world. We can't hide from the world because we need to be in the world and engaged in that world. We can't make the world go away or do a whole lot toward making the world safe for our children. Instead, our main task as parents should be to make our children safe for this world by teaching them to make a difference. I like to say, "Curse the darkness and light a candle." This book is one of my candles.
What steps should we take to make our kids safe for this world?
Our kids need more of us now than they ever have before. Be there for them. We need to insulate them intellectually and morally and most importantly, we need to give them a foundation of faith.
Part of insulating them is to hold them close, at least for a while. Then comes the hard part: knowing when to let them go. But letting them go is a lot easier when you're confident in your own faith and know that you have instilled that faith in them.
It's still difficult for parents not to worry about their children.
Of course it is. It's okay to be a little worried. That's part of being a good parent. My wife is a good example. She's in a constant state of attention. Note that I didn't say "constant state of anxiety," but rather, attention. She's constantly aware of what's going on with our sons, who their teachers are, what kinds of friends they're hanging out with, what music they're listening to and videos they're watching. It's important that we pay attention to our kids and what they're doing.
It's easy for parents to look at the world and see only the negatives. You believe there is hope for future generations to thrive as moral and spiritual "candles." How do you hold onto that hope?
Here in Washington, I work with a lot of the young people. They come here eager and fresh-faced and with very few exceptions, they are all good kids, the cream of the crop. When you meet the ones who have made it here, it doesn't take you long to figure out why they've made it. They've been grounded in faith, morality, and decency. They have parents who loved them enough to teach them values and give them direction. When parents take the time to instill real values in their children, kids can overcome the world.
And you know, what it all comes down to is this: When there is Christ, there is grace. And it's in that grace that we can stand firmly rooted.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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NOTE: For your convenience, the following products, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase:
? The Children's Book of Virtues, edited by William J. Bennett
? The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, edited by William J. Bennett
? The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey, edited by William J. Bennett