What do we have so far in this little series about the moral life of the child and how to nurture it?
Part 1: My preliminary musings on a sort of sadness and loss of meaning that comes from trying to live life without reference to our moral nature.
Part 2: Things grow according to their nature: God gives very young children a mother, a father, and family life to teach them that things are; a child at at the age of reason starts the simple task of memorizing the Commandments, with a necessary but small amount of instruction.
Part 3: A bit more about teaching the Ten Commandments, with some resources that can take you right up to to the point where the child is intellectually able to delve deeper and more analytically into the truths of the faith, and most importantly, has the beginnings of the habits of virtue that must undergird such a study.
Part 4: The older child, and why don’t we just read the Catechism of the Catholic Church with him?
I think this might be my last post here on this topic. Maybe I will elaborate in my book! I could talk about all this for a good long time (did you know I could speak to your group about it?).
In Parts 1 and 2 I tried to explain that nothing replaces a loving mother and father who can deal sensitively with the little moral crises of the very young child. In fact, the child knows God only through the parents (in the normal course of things) at this point, for the reason that God entrusts to the parents the privilege of making the child aware of the world beyond the home. Here you get a glimpse something profound: The three Commandments that relate to honoring God give way to the six relating to man’s neighbor by means of the hinge Commandment, the fourth, in which the positive “honor your father and your mother” links the two vital precepts, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s sometimes hard to trust in this truth.
Our age, having done its utmost to destroy the family’s unique role, then replaces it with a condescending pedagogy, serving up capsules of dry lessons, explaining its pat observations with unrelieved tedium.
“Sometimes adults can be confusing and mess things up,” our apostles of therapeutic helpfulness directly inform the child. But he may not want to hear or be ready for this disturbing bit of information! After all, as Bruno Bettelheim so admirably explained in The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, what child can admit to himself that his parents are weak? What recourse would he have?
Good point, we say. And then… go on to put our hopes in some variant of this misbegotten form of education, the “character building” program for ethical living. It’s like an addiction: even if we know that we are not succeeding in teaching children, we keep wasting time on failed methods. Or we settle for pacification, entertainment, and quiet (for us, if not for the children) — and neglect.
I hope I’ve convinced you so far of importance of teaching the Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes. It is possible that even these revelations from God could devolve into the same dry dust that chokes, rather than the life-giving water they are meant to be.
That is why I return to the importance of the imagination, the formation of which is the most fundamental step in the moral education of the child, and can only take place by gradual degrees in the bosom of the family, with the delicate support of other institutions if possible. As important as fairy tales are for healthy emotional development, they are even more so for moral development, especially for the virtue of fortitude that is so necessary to accomplish the good.
Perhaps a glimpse of The Six Swans, a fairy tale I dearly love (but I could have chosen a dozen others), can illuminate another, more time-tested way. This story opens with a few deft, artful strokes that capture the human condition, with a little commentary from me in brackets:
A king was once hunting in a great wood [and the wood is life itself], and he hunted the game so eagerly that none of this courtiers could follow him. [The king is subject to his passions, which are represented by hunting. The listener immediately knows that he doesn’t exercise self-control; consequently, his courtiers, who serve him, but who also merit protection from him, are left behind.]
When evening came on, he stood still and looked round him, and he saw that he had quite lost himself. [This is the perfect way of expressing the situation, is it not? No one did it to him — he lost himself. He’s king, after all; but the implicit message is that with great power comes the need for great self-control.] He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he saw an old woman with a shaking head coming towards him; but she was a witch.
Now the troubles of the story begin. In exchange for her help in finding a way out of the wood, he must marry the beautiful daughter of the witch. Despite her beauty, the king “could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror.” What an interesting warning note that is! Nevertheless, he marries her because he feels compelled to.
He has six boys and one girl by his first wife, whose fate we are not told. (Bettelheim points out that the stepmother is the fairytale’s device for avoiding the devastating effects on the vulnerable child of too harsh an exposure of the mother.)
There is something going on in this story with the needs, desires, and relationships of this king that is not made clear, and this too is true to life. Only when they grow up do children realize how complex their parents’ inner lives often are or were — parents want to teach the child to be good, but have struggles of their own. This is just something about life that we have to accept, and something that the fairy tale acknowledges.
Because of this father’s unbridled selfishness, his whole family is plunged into captivity and abandonment. Only the self-sacrifice of the girl (who represents the soul) can rescue the brothers (who represent the facets of the personality that must be integrated in order to reach maturity, both psychological and moral), who have been turned into swans by the witch.
With great difficulty, the girl sews shirts that will release her brothers from their enchantment, but to succeed, she may not speak, not even to her husband, not even to save her own life from terrible accusations that lead her to execution. You might say that there is a seemingly arbitrary commandment that she must follow, just as the moral code seems arbitrary to the child, at first — or she will fail.
Her toil and suffering — and great courage — represent the inner workings of the soul, which must take place without articulation for the most part, even when life seems in danger. As parents, do we know how the interior life develops, and do we respect it and trust in its unseen power?
In the end, the girl is saved from death at the last moment when, true to her mission to the end, she throws the shirts over her brothers’ heads. Only the final sleeve isn’t completed, so the youngest brother must be content with a swan’s wing rather than a man’s arm. Here, with a masterful and unexpected detail, the story helps us accept that we can never quite conquer our passions in this life, but nevertheless, we can be assured that all will be well and we will escape the burning pyre, just as the sister does. When she finally speaks, she gives voice to this promise:
“Dearest husband… now I can tell you openly that I am innocent… ” The King and the Queen [that is, the girl] with their six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.
If we are honest with ourselves as parents, we realize that we will eventually and probably continually commit the fault of the king. Honesty about our own shortcomings ought to bring a lot of gratitude for the help that fairy tales offer — that is, that the collective memory preserves for us in our weakness.
I believe that stories like The Six Swans help us to understand the mystery of being good — and that we can’t reduce the learning of it to a more manageable process.
The child listens to the story, reads it over and over, and absorbs not only its meaning on some level, but also the meaning embedded in the parent’s approval and telling of it. “If my mother takes time to read me this story,” he thinks, “it must have meaning for me.”
We need precepts. We need — acutely — the Ten Commandments. We need the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Beatitudes.
And we need beauty with its hidden ways of radiating the splendor of truth. “All art is hidden” says the poet Ovid. A beautiful story can accomplish what years of explanation cannot.
We need both beauty and precept, and only in the family do the two strands weave into a meaningful sort of formation.
When life lacks the austere guidance of the sense of purpose it degenerates into pseudo-aestheticism. But when it is forced into the rigid framework that is the purely purposeful conception of the world, it droops and perishes. The two conceptions are interdependent. Purpose is the goal of all effort, labor and organization, meaning is the essence of existence, of flourishing, ripening life. Purpose and meaning, effort and growth, activity and production, organization and creation–these are the two poles of existence.
I’ve only looked briefly at one story here. There are so many (including other kinds of good literature we discuss elsewhere on the blog . Taken together, they illuminate with the power of imagination, the reality that the world has its appearances but that there exists another plane, a kingdom, you might say, in which the last will be first, a determined girl can save her brothers, the good will be rewarded in unexpected ways, and the innocent have grace on their side.
For more on the fairy stories in the Lang series of fairy tales — and the importance of beauty in the development of the child, read this post.
Besides the Yellow Fairy Book (and all the other “colored” ones in the series), this post has many suggestions of stories for young children, in the context of the Ask Auntie Leila question, “Are Fairy Tales Always Appropriate?”
For more on the unhelpfulness of books that directly aim to build character, read this this post.