Sometimes we rely solely on rules and discipline to teach our children how to behave. But is a more effective way to instill values and encourage good behavior being overlooked? Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." When it comes to teaching our children how to handle life with grace, he may have been onto something.
When my mother was growing up in the quaint, rural town of Wynne, Arkansas in the 1950s, my grandmother invented stories she shared every morning before school about "the little people that lived under the house". There were a cast of characters that included a crocodile, a rooster, a worm, and a couple of fairies who visited from the big oak tree in the garden. My mother sat entranced as each five minute morality tale imparted something my grandmother wanted her to remember each day like: be kind to everyone you meet, keep up with your belongings, be brave and try again if you fail, and believe in yourself even if the bullies tease you.
When my mother had me, she also wanted me to grow up with a sense of morals and unconditional love, so she created the ritual of reading together every night before bed. I feel quite fortunate about it after learning that, in the following decade there were 44 million adults in the U.S. who could not read well enough to read a simple story to a child. (National Adult Literacy Survey (1992) NCED, U.S. Department of Education.) My mother knew that she was offering me even more than literacy. She had intended to plant seeds of good behavior early on, by choosing books that illustrated important values like thoughtfulness, helping those less fortunate, persistence, politeness, courage, and self-reliance. Did it work?
As a child I was remarkably interested in performing well, even when I struggled with subjects that challenged me, and now I site those special children's books as my inspiration for becoming a novelist, and also for providing me with the strength to persevere through the lean years. I met with hundreds of agent and publisher rejections over ten years before I got my lucky break and had my first novel optioned by a three time Academy Award-winning producer. I can trace back and see how my mother instilled in me the important values of life that would help me get to where I am today, just in those simple moments of reading stories before bed.
So, now it's my turn. Living in Los Angeles in the 21st century as I plan my first pregnancy, I find myself returning to my grandmother's tradition. Like all new parents, I want my child to grow up learning the everyday wisdom that will help him or her get through the tough moments that life proffers. Though some parents might judge me for it, I'm actually less concerned about my baby getting into the right college than in learning the life lessons that will help my child choose the right friends, stay out of trouble, and follow his or her heart wherever it leads.
Lately, about once a week, I find myself making a trip to my local bookstore, gradually collecting the classic illustrated books I loved as a child, rediscovering all those beautiful stories. It is a joy to watch the small bookshelf I created in my bedroom for these books growing in anticipation of having a child to read them to.
Though it was challenging to whittle it down, here is my top 10 list of inspirational children's books that every parent should have, and a note about the lesson each book teaches your child:
Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus. Here's a book to remind us that we are all special, even if we bloom a little late.
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Sometimes it takes a little ingenuity and help from kind-hearted friends to make it through the tough moments to find where you belong.
The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. Being different is hard, but if you don't give up, you find your true magnificence is revealed naturally.
The Story of Ferdinand by Robert Lawson. Maybe it's okay to be a little different than the rest of the herd, no matter what anyone says.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Here is a story that illustrates how important it is to never take anyone we love for granted.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Change is at the heart of life, especially for a child who is growing so fast. The caterpillar's transformation illustrates the magic of how life's changes can lead to beautiful surprises.
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. The Lorax teaches kids how important it is to love the Earth, and why having more isn't always better.
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and Loren Long. A classic tale that teaches children to never give up on their dreams.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. The author has brought to life a family of rabbits who struggle with the same things every family struggles with, and their determination to love each other even when it isn't always easy.
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. This is a great story for young children that reminds them how a mother's love is greater than anything in the world.
While rules and discipline certainly have a place in raising our kids, by also reading these imaginative stories with them, we might actually inspire them to behave well at home and in school, and reach for their dreams whatever they may be.