This post was co-written with my wife, Jessica
2am. One of us stumbles out of bed. Again.
“I can’t sleep. I’m afraid.”
What if there are malarial mosquitos in the house? What if I have a heart attack because I ate too much butter? What if I get skin cancer from being outside today? I can’t stop thinking about the bad guy from the cartoon, or the child-snatching monster from the fairy tale, or…
You get the idea. All of our children have dealt with fear (don’t we all?), but there was a time years ago when one of our sons hit a wall that left us at a loss as to how we could help. He was paralysed by his fears, and it was beginning to rule all of our lives. We’ve read the parenting books, and we know that children must be guided and disciplined – taught to keep out of traffic and away from bad influences, taught to be respectful, taught to tell the truth. But there are some problems that can’t be solved with good discipline and appropriate manners. What do we do when a child struggles with anxiety? What do we do when a child cares too much about what their friends think? When a child is never satisfied or content with what they have? More rules won’t be sufficient. Yet if we allow these things to take root in a child’s life, they can result in great grief and suffering. Have you ever seen an adult crippled by fear? Desperate to please others? Intensely discontented? We don’t want these things for our children. But what can we do?
When our child hit a wall of fear, we had to respond. Unsure of ourselves, unsure of the best way forward through this new challenge, we began with prayer, believing that God is willing and able to give the wisest and best help. We started with the basics, working to fortify him through good friends and mentors, and an extra reassuring and safe home environment. And we also tried an experiment: we began to use targeted reading that we hoped would help equip him to face his fears with hope and courage. We used a blend of kid-friendly true stories (biography and history books) and fiction. All the books we chose had characters who were truly heroic, who faced tremendous challenges with courage and overcame great odds. We never accompanied the giving of a book with a lecture (“Now I want you to notice how the characters in this book face their fears….”) We simply gave him the books and let him mentally digest them in his own way. Over the past few years we have seen our experiment really pay off. The paralysing fear is gone, and we now have a son who is characterised by courage and quiet confidence. We have a long way left to go as parents and a lot more to learn, but we’re glad we discovered that good stories can be such a strong ally for us and our children.
There are many reasons to encourage our children to read. We want them to expand their knowledge. We want them to develop a good vocabulary. We want their imagination to flourish. We want them to have healthy ways to spend their time. Reading books of all types can be good for all of these reasons. Yet we have come to see that the reading of well-written stories (both real-life and fictional) can shape a child in ways that are even more fundamental — by expanding their understanding of the world and others who are different from them, by equipping them with coping skills to use in difficult situations, and by exposing them to the profound truths that order their existence and indeed that of the universe. Stories, both real-life and imaginary, can powerfully engage our minds and emotions in ways that a “how-to” book, instructional video, or parental lecture never could. Stories can draw deep truths and heroic virtues out of the realm of theory into tangible reality where we can see them played out before our eyes. The best and most valuable children’s books are written by men and women who understand this. Why not use this powerful ally in our parenting?
We must not underestimate the power of a good book.
Here are a few Lewis family favourites:
The Fisherman’s Lady / The Marqui’s Secret (the two part story of Malcom)
The Tale of Despereaux
At the Back of the North Wind
Heroes of History / Christian Heroes Series
History Lives (A 5 volume history of the Christian church written for children)
Trail Blazers biographies
The Book of Virtues (a blend of short stories, poems, and biographical sketches organised by the “virtue” they emphasise — a must have for any family with young children!)