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Story power

Teach your child emotional intelligence through great books

In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon" To this day my oldest son?now a strapping 17-year-old?gets Goodnight Moony-eyed when he hears me read these lines, though nowadays I'm reading to his youngest brothers. Just goes to show how the stories we read our children night after night stay nestled in their hearts forever.

And, I must admit, they nestle in mine. Thirty years of turning pages with my children hasn't diminished at all the wonder of children's stories. I still perk up at the rhythms and well-chosen words of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I'm still captivated by the whimsical images of Runaway Bunny. But there's much more in those pages than meets the ear and eye. The longer I read with my kids?from books like The Rainbow Fish and Where the Wild Things Are, The Tales of Narnia and David Copperfield?the more I appreciate the deep impact stories have on the lives of children.

The Emotional Factor

There's nothing like snuggling up with your child and digging into a wonderful story. Not only does reading to and with your child help her develop a love of books, it helps her develop emotional intelligence as well. Emotional intelligence is what we use to discern what we feel?anger, joy, frustration, contentment?why we feel it, and what we can do about it. Emotional intelligence is a vital skill to teach our children, and they need our help to find appropriate ways to express their feelings. Stories can be one of the most effective tools for doing that.

Well-chosen stories give meaning and structure to the way a child sees the world. They reinforce biblical values such as kindness and compassion. Most of all, they offer a safe, secure context for sorting out feelings.

Unlike adults, who can reason through emotional conflicts?feeling something we'd rather not?children lack the language, tools, and experience to do so. For example, a child with a new brother or sister may experience a host of new emotions. Though sibling rivalry and anger toward parents are normal, the child doesn't know that. When these feelings well up, they're ugly and frightening. The child thinks, Mommy says I'm good when I'm nice to the baby. But when he cries I want to make him stop. I must be very bad. The right story can help the child begin to understand those confusing feelings.

Some of my favorite stories are the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban. These stories feature a young badger named Frances whose experiences are common to all children. A Baby Sister for Frances deals with sibling rivalry. In A Birthday for Frances, the ebb and flow of generosity and jealousy that come when it's someone else's birthday are handled with charm and humor. In Bedtime for Frances, Frances tackles her fears of going to bed. Because the unfamiliar feelings are projected onto a creature that doesn't look like the child on the outside, but seems a lot like her on the inside, the books let the reader step outside of herself and see her feelings more objectively. That Frances is transparent, that she warbles funny tunes about her quandaries, and that her parents love her no matter what?these make the stories even more appealing and fill the child with hope that she, too, can begin to deal with her feelings.

Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are provides a similar comfort for any child who's had a tantrum and didn't know how to stop. Though some Christians shun this book?following the lead of one critic who claimed it celebrates "unfettered rebellion"?they're missing a really special and reassuring message for their children. Here's the scoop:

Max misbehaves at dinner and is sent to his room. (Max has parents who care enough to punish him when necessary.)

Max sails away to an island full of Wild Things. (Max cranks up his tantrum?a "wild rumpus" with the Wild Things.)

Max, "King of All the Wild Things," finally commands them to stop. (He realizes he can take control of his emotions.)

Though the Wild Things beg him to stay, Max sails home again. (He makes the right decision.)

In his room, he finds his warm dinner still waiting. (His parents haven't stopped loving him.)

Max is admitting that he can control his emotions and is capable of doing the right thing. His story teaches children to realize that as well.

With the right story, you can help your child begin to make sense of his feelings. But choosing the right story demands a little thought. While children's books are usually divided into two categories?fiction and nonfiction?it's more helpful to think in terms of three: stories that really happened, such as Bible stories or historical events; stories that could happen, such as those featuring fictional characters facing real dilemmas; and stories that could never happen at all, such as those with talking animal characters or fantastic situations. Each type of story has a special contribution to make in your child's emotional development.

What Really Happened

If you need proof that stories are a powerful teaching tool, look no further than the Bible?the very best story of all. From Creation, through the Fall, to the stunning tale of our redemption, the Bible is packed with stories that teach us who God is and who we are to be as his children. As someone who grew up without the Bible, when I read these stories for the first time with my children, I found them absolutely thrilling. Knowing they were true made them even more compelling. Since these stories are the foundation of our faith, be sure your children understand they are different from lots of other stories they'll read because they really happened. Your Christian bookstore can help you find a Bible and Bible-based stories that are just right for your children.

That same thrill of reading something that really happened can be found in biographies and books from other cultures. If it's something your child hasn't seen with his own eyes, don't forget to state clearly that it was or is real. Kids love to discover new places and things and these kinds of books can expand their world in an amazing way.

What Could Happen

Books that address the fears and problems of childhood play a special role in children's reading. Most of these stories deal with situations a child might experience. Maybe your child is excited about spending the night at a friend's house, but scared that his friend will tease him when he finds out he still sleeps with his teddy bear. In Ira Sleeps Over, this typical 7-year-old crisis is handled with empathy and humor. Your child can probably imagine how terrible it would be to lose her home and belongings in a fire, but discover how wonderful it would be to have a mother who works hard as a waitress to earn the family's daily bread. A Chair for My Mother tells of a family coping with this difficult situation with grace and love. A lesson is learned and hearts are warmed. These stories bring issues to the surface, spark discussion, promise resolution, and offer hope and reassurance.

What Couldn't Happen at All

Though adults know the difference between reality and fantasy, young children do not. Unless we help them sort it out, they're likely to assume David and Goliath live in the same part of the world as Jack and his beanstalk.

Some parents and educators are adamant that children should only read books that are reality-based. For instance, Maria Montessori believed that because young children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, introducing fantasy into their lives will only confuse them. Besides, she reasoned, reality is so full of marvelous things that we can easily fill the early years just teaching children all the wonders of the world and save fantasy for later. Likewise, some parents, because of their spiritual convictions, wish to avoid fantasy, or even stories that have animals as talking characters.

I see great value in fantasy, although it requires a little extra discernment on your part to make sure that the author's agenda is compatible with what you want your children to learn.

So use discernment, but don't forget that there's more to stories than meets the eye. As your child moves through life, stories can be an invaluable tool for helping her understand the host of emotions she'll experience. Make room for books that help your children today. Then rejoice when you find these stories still nestled in their hearts tomorrow.

Barbara Curtis is a former teacher, an author, and the mother of 12. She and her family live in California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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