03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Once Upon a Time

I never realized how profoundly the books that were read to me as a child influenced my developing personality until as an adult, I began to rediscover favorite tales as I read them to my own children. But through my grown eyes, I have discovered depth, silliness, and brilliance that were lost on me (at least consciously) as a child.

As a culture, we've come a long way from the scary harshness of Brothers Grimm, and we're even growing out of the old school Disney princess, who, unable to save herself, relies on the help of a trusty prince to handle grisly details. While all of these stories are still floating around, there's a new wave of children's books where males and females are equally competent. Girls can be strong, smart, and adventurous, as in Fancy Nancy, Once Upon a Time in the Meadow, Dora the Explorer and the Little Einsteins, without belittling or excluding the boys.

As a parent, this is such a relief to have in the mix. How much do the stories children hear influence who they become and how they think as adults? As a parent, I couldn't help but wonder. I have known many intelligent and strong women who were unable to see themselves as such because of their cultural influences. And I have known men who were unable to deal with a woman who had an identity of her own because it was too far off of their conceptual brain maps.

In a study done at Worcester State College, preschool children were found to routinely choose toys that were stereotypically gender appropriate after hearing stereotypical stories. Conversely, they chose neutral and non-gender specific toys to play with after hearing non-stereoptypical stories. The effect of gender role perceptions are profoundly influenced by the stories children hear: this is well documented. But how much do stories affect who our children become, how they see the world, and what they believe is possible?

One sure way to investigate this question can be found in a fascinating look at the early literary influence of the author, Dylan Thomas. What better evidence of children's stories on a human being than a look into the early literary influences of a prolific writer? Much of his psyche and his life are available for examination of influence, as Beth Greenway so aptly points out in her article in Children's Literary Association Quarterly. She raises a valid question in her article, asking why we don't look deeper into the childhood influences that help form the adults our children will become.

What were your most influential children's stories? What would you read to your children, and what might you skip?