I once read a quote by G.K. Chesterton that said, “Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children dragons can be killed.”
I like that quote a lot. Although now I know it’s actually a misquote. The original quote is from Tremendous Trifles where Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
Both quotes have the same meaning. They are both pointing us in the same direction. Both are telling us the value of the stories we tell our children.
I am not regimented in my home when it comes to “spiritual” things. Some may see this as a failure, but I don’t. My hope as a father is that my children would see the world as it truly is, including its spirituality. I don’t want my children to go to bed feeling guilty because they weren’t able to complete their chore of Bible reading. I would rather them wake up with the awareness that God is holding all things together.I don't want my children to go to bed feeling guilty because they weren't able to complete their chore of Bible reading. I would rather them wake up with the awareness that God is holding all things together. Click To Tweet
Now I’m not saying spiritual disciplines are bad or wrong. They simply should never be our goal. They are a means, not the end.
So what does this have to do with stories?
Stories help us view the world through a specific lens. Jesus used stories, called parables, to help open our awareness to truths about the reality of the Kingdom. We tell children fiction and fables from the day they are born to open their awareness as well.
For example, let’s look at Aesops Fable The Hare and The Tortoise. When we tell this fable to children, we aren’t attempting to merely entertain them. We can be entertaining in the way we present the story so they will be engaged and remember it. We also aren’t trying to educate them more about the social interactions of rabbits and turtles. If that was the goal, we’d be failing miserably.
We tell this fable to teach moral truths. We want them to be able to value patience and persistence, to know they shouldn’t try to take shortcuts in life. They shouldn’t be arrogant or look down on others. There are a host of values in this one story.
You might ask, “can’t we simply tell children these morals upfront without the disguise of a story?” Yes, but they wouldn’t understand. A child hasn’t lived enough life to be capable of internalizing these values. They haven’t built the mental constructs necessary to truly understand what these morals mean.
Stories frame the moral, the principal, or value in a construct the child can reasonably engage with. This allows the child to understand and begin to internalize. There’s no lie or deception. No child is shocked or traumatized when they go outside and realize turtles and rabbits don’t talk to each other or engage in organized sporting activities. They know those things aren’t true. The story is simply a vehicle used to build what we see as important in the mind and the life of our children.
The values of faith are no different. Jesus had to use stories when talking to grown adults. We don’t have the constructs to fully understand the implications of the Kingdom of God in our own lives. How much more do children need these stories?
Stories like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Wingfeather Saga help our children understand there are parts of this world we cannot see with our eyes. They point to a reality that is even difficult for adults to grasp. However, by building these constructs we are helping them build minds capable of grasping much deeper spiritual truths as they grow and experience more of the world around them. They’ll have categories in place to see the truth around them.
These stories also open the door for conversations and important teaching moments. Many years ago I was reading A Horse and His Boy to my sons. In case you don’t know. This is a book in The Chronicles of Narnia series. It’s usually the least favorite of the books. I actually thought about skipping over it as we were going through the series. I’m really glad I didn’t. There were a few scenes that spark great questions about difficult times in life.
In one scene Shasta (the boy in the title) is riding the horse off the main path to avoid being detected. As he rides he hears what sounds like a lion. Shasta is faced with the dilemma of confronting a wild lion or risk being discovered on the main path. He eventually steers the horse over to the path he was originally trying to avoid. He escaped the lion (or sounds of a lion) and runs into his soon-to-be travel companion, Aravis. If he hadn’t changed his course he probably wouldn’t have met this young girl. He would have completely missed out on many things he needed on the journey.
After reading this section my oldest son asked if I thought that Aslan was the lion on the other path. He was probably about seven or eight at the time. He said that maybe Aslan knew Shasta needed to be on the other path so he made him not want to be on the path he had been on. Then he asked if God ever did that with us. It opened up a great opportunity to talk about how God leads and guides us. How God is always working things together for our good, even if we can’t see it in the moment.
I’ll remember this conversation and others like it for the rest of my life. My hope is that my sons will too. Sunday school lessons about Bible stories are great and can be very formative, but they can’t compare to these kinds of conversations.
The benefit to the spiritual depth of our children is great. But reading these stories together also helps strengthen family relationships and bonds. I can address a situation by referencing something I know my kids will understand from a story. It helps give us language as we encounter things in life.
But there’s an added bonus here. These stories also work in the parents. Some of these stories aren’t new to me. I read some of them when I was young. However, reading them as an adult gives me a different perspective. The way Lewis describes creating through the song of Aslan is beautiful. To see the grace the Maker shows to Kalmar Wingfeather is soul-stirring. There have been times I’ve found myself tearing up as I am faced with reminders of who God is, what He has done for us, and that He is working in ways we can barely see.
So find good, deep, rich stories to read with your kids. They’re not too young or too old. Neither are you. Let God work through these stories to strengthen your bonds and to form them into the people He has created them to be.