Gateway to the Classics: Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard
Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by  J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard

How Stories Develop the Personality

Every race has its heritage of folk-tales and myths that have a far larger meaning than the mere entertainment of the young. Scientists study these stories of the past with painstaking care, because they reveal the genius of the people. Not only do they reflect the ideals which have shaped the social and religious life, but they have shaped those ideals and have given them form and power. As factors in molding character, the stories of the gods are not less important than the rites of worship.

Edward Porter St. John, Stories and Story-Telling.    

The stories that charm the merry and the serious moods of child and man alike, transporting each to the lands of yesterday, today, or never-was, express as many varying conceptions of life as varying minds are capable of entertaining. Yet these views of life are by no means clearly recognized by all those who act upon them, for many an ideal, whether base or high, is only hazily present in the mind, while yet being clear enough to influence vital choices and actions subconsciously. Thus only a few of the many who enjoy a story have either the ability or the inclination to see in it a crystallization of the facts of life and man's attitude toward those facts. Nevertheless, each story that is worth hearing or reading does really embody a part of our idea of what life means to mankind.

This power of the story to express our ideals and to affect their character is as old as the idea of story-telling, and that is so old that primitive man practiced it in his first effort to adorn the account of some encounter with an enemy, man or beast.

Daily, and in surprising ways, the alert observer may see how the development of the individual parallels the progress of the race from its beginnings —only, the child, the youth, the adult, takes with a casual step whole ascents which cost humanity ages of steady climbing to overpass. Pressed not too far, this truth has value when we plan and carry out educational processes for either home, school, or recreation center, particularly as we come to see its bearing on the use of fiction in the development of personality. Just as the story bore its part in race-progress, so does it both assist in and mark out the growth of personality in the child—and even in the adult—as will presently appear.

A basis for this belief may be found in the fact that stories which are in essence one—like "Cinderella," which dates at least from Strabo—have appeared with more or less variation from early times down to the present, among many nations. This well-known fact shows not so much that one people gives its stories to another, as that all peoples share commonly, though of course in different measure, certain fundamental emotions, desires, and conceptions of life. And so do all children, and hence all grown-ups.

Stories Express the Hopes of Mankind

A very little thought will enable any of us to find a score and more of elemental ideas to illustrate the statement made in the foregoing heading. Primitive man felt the futility of his struggle against the physical forces of cold, darkness, hunger, thirst, weariness, disease and death, just as we of today may become disheartened in our battles against the subtler powers of disappointment, the disloyalty of others and our own moral weaknesses. Try as he might, one or another of these mysterious powers of nature defeated his desires. His crude inventions of fireplaces, lights, beds, medicines, stored food and drink—all left him vanquished in the contest; and even today, after ages of devising, this battle with Nature still is waging. What, then, could be more natural in such circumstances than that our prehistoric forebears should dream of a sun-hero whose shafts of eternal light could put to death the dragon of darkness; or of a goddess of plenty whose cornucopia poured out fruits in abundance; or of a being from the air whose magic was strong to stay death and heal all hurts? In some such way, it seems, the first myths arose, and grew and changed with much telling until they became comparatively fixed.

And so today we turn oftenest to those stories that embody our hopes—even hopes that at times we have called dead. Man still finds in his fictions—and in his true stories—what Dr. Partridge has called "an effort to obtain vicarious satisfaction from an unyielding world." The work-weary mother loses herself, but really finds her ideal self, in the happy outcome of a story that brings rest out of labors, and is a solvent for the same sort of worry that has eaten into her own soul. We need only analyze our own experiences to multiply examples of how in the story-world we find what our ancestors near and remote used to find in fictional creations, whether their own or told by others—the satisfaction that life has denied, or has seemed to deny, to them. It is not only children who lead story-lives—blessed anodynes for real cares!

Even the minority who have a melancholy joy in stories that end in disaster and ruin feel themselves to suffer the losses of the victim of perfidy, of trickery, of Nature, of fate, for it is a satisfaction to be able to pity ourselves cordially—a very human satisfaction, albeit not a lofty nor a strengthening one. So we find in this state of mind no exception to what appears to be a general experience— that stories hold our interest because they transport us to a realm where things work out in somewhat the way that seems to us to be typical of life, either as it is or as we should like it to be.

Have you never when a child gone to bed smarting under a real or fancied injustice and fallen asleep picturing yourself a powerful noble, at last come to your own, and in a lordly way forgiving—or perhaps punishing—the humiliated author of that wrong against you? Children naturally take to the idea of poetic justice and readily fictionize the outcome of slights and favors. But before we apply this trait to character training we must consider two other foundation principles. The first of these—closely related to the truth just illustrated, that stories express the hopes of mankind—is this:

Stories Often Lead the Hearer to Form Moral Judgments

The place of the moral in the story—or rather the importance of not drawing an obvious moral in storytelling—must be touched on later, but here let us say that this, one of the chief educational values of story-telling, takes care of itself in the conscience of the child if the story is well arranged and adequately told. As soon as children come to the stage when they begin to distinguish between good and bad, generous and selfish, kind and cruel conduct in themselves and others, they involuntarily feel more or less clear reactions from the conduct of the story-people who are presented to them. This part of the problem of the story-teller, therefore, is to select such stories as will lead the child to form sound moral judgments, rightly approving or condemning the actions of characters—in most cases without his uttering a word. To excite such discriminations is a subtle function of the story-teller, and a vital one. Not all stories, of course, will serve this end—to try to make them do so will defeat the end of pure pleasure in many a good tale.

From our own grown-up experiences we can draw many illustrations. A vicious novel is one that makes vice alluring; a wholesome story may paint evil realistically, yet delicately we are led to see not only its enormity but its consequences, and that without a single word of preachment. Just so moral judgments—not at all necessarily on great questions—are inevitably formed in the spirit of the child by hearing such stories as David and Goliath, Reynard the Fox, and others that raise issues of conduct.

Stories Stimulate All the Mental and Moral Processes

It is enough merely to state the principle at this point, as it will be dwelt upon in later chapters. Think it over a few moments, however, to see how wide is its application. Consider, for example, how sense-appeal in stories that deal with color, or sound, or touch, or taste, or smell, may be just as educational as emotional appeal, of whatever sort. The story, let it be remembered, may excite any sort of reaction which it is skillfully planned to call forth.

The Definite Effects Of Fiction on the Personality of the Child

First let us see what is meant by personality—though it baffles definition. It is that which marks an individual as being himself and not another. Therefore it is known by its manifestations. It is the blended force of "What Is," "What Thinks," "What Wills" and "What Does" that, to paraphrase Robert Browning, constitutes the man.

Personality is both positive and negative in its nature. It leads to action or it inhibits action. A boy, say, is self-willed, selfishly tenacious of his own, and cares not a whit for the good opinion of others—except that he is pained when his mother is sad. He begins to show ideals of honor, but he has a somewhat warped personal code, by which whatever affects his own happiness and that of his mother are his sole standards of good and bad. It must be plain that stories—which subtly creep into his mind and there set up ideals of conduct—will either confirm this lad in his bent or gradually shake his childish conviction that it is good (which to him means satisfying) to think and act as he does.

The problem, then, is to find, modify or invent not only one story but a number that will—not too obviously—show, and not formally say, that a lad's mother is deeply hurt by a self-willed son; that the child who considers others prepares happiness for himself and others; that strength and the joy of doing things come by showing ourselves indifferent to what lessens or increases merely our own pain, and being regardful of the things that make others happy, and therefore finally ourselves content.

To develop personality in the child by story-telling means, first, to implant proper ideals by showing that a certain course of conduct brings happiness, as well as by showing through the action of the story and its ending that wrong ideals lead to various unhappy results. The child begins by being a hedonist—that is, he is deeply moved to action by the idea of happiness—and this notion will never entirely leave him. How to harmonize this ideal of personal happiness with the happiness and well-being of others is really the problem of life, and we must attack it cautiously from the start—cautiously, lest we teach him the mischievous doctrine that man's chief end is to attain happiness, whatever be the means.

Further, personality is developed by those stories that lead to action. What we all need in greater measure is dynamic personality. It is not enough that the child be led to form judgments as to what is right or wrong in the actions of the story-people—he must be inspired to do things: inspired by example, excited by the allurement of the possible, led out of himself by stories of achievement. Motor-reaction stories are important factors in bringing about this action-mood in the mind of the child, and this field is simply tremendous in its possibilities. When a story seizes hold of the imagination its power for good—or for evil—is unspeakable. Think how an unworthy motive may be inhibited and a noble one substituted by the story of "White Fang," re-told for children. Let this purpose of supplying dynamic to the personality be prominent in all your story-telling.

But there are many other phases of personality, as we see upon a little reflection, and all these may be moved upon by the story. The morbid, brooding child may be allured from over-sensitiveness, the stolid awakened, the shallow deepened, and the morally obtuse quickened in all that we call conscience.

From this no one, of course, will hastily assume that the development of personality is altogether or even chiefly a matter of story-telling. In this book the authors are laying emphasis on the story as being one, and only one, important element in child-culture. The wise guardian of the child will constantly coördinate the whole regimen of training—physical, social, intellectual, moral—so that the story may illustrate and teach the very standards of what is good that are being set up and enforced by other means of teaching, in home, school, and elsewhere.

The Effect of Fiction on the Story-Teller

How vital is the bearing of story-preference upon the growth of personality in the adult! Whatever a man loves, he is—potentially, and often actually. And because the fiction we read reacts so vitally upon our own characters, the parent, the nurse, the teacher, the temporary guardian, whose privilege it is to tell a story to a child, owes a primary obligation to herself to select for her own reading a type of fiction that tends to develop in her a worthy personality. However deeply the mother, actual or expectant, may be interested in books of sex-struggle, crime, and sordid atmosphere, certainly she should ask herself whether it would not be better for her child were its mother to fill her mind—and that does involve all her hopes and ideals—with thoughts of brightness, victory, and purity. How can there be a divided answer to this question?

Obviously, we do not urge that a story-teller's reading should be namby-pamby, for stories that teach a robust, uplifting philosophy are anything but sugar coated; it is important, however, that room be given—yes, made—in the story-teller's heart for fiction that illustrates the worth-whileness of man's struggle for purity, honesty, and all the best things; that shows that inner victory is more important than outward success when that success is denied; and that leaves us with the feeling that good is more powerful than evil. We who tell stories to little ones have no right to allow acid books to make our spirits rheumatic, and if we cannot read them—as most people cannot—without at least insensibly drawing in their taint, they had better be discarded for stories of hope and brave spirit. The very first demand that the race may and ought to make upon its story-tellers is that they develop in themselves a personality whose charm and optimistic vigor is worth transmitting in the stories they tell to others, young or old.

Every line of the foregoing implies that if in any degree pessimistic and sordid fiction may not harm the storyteller it will be entirely due to the reaction by which a healthy nature throws off the depressing—an experience that is by no means universal. But a child is not so constituted, for its personality is as yet undeveloped, or may be already beginning to develop in wrong directions. What care, then, should be given to choosing for the little ones those stories which suggest right ideals, move them to wise choices, and inspire them vigorously to good action!

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  1. Take any Greek myth and, applying the principle suggested in this chapter, show how it might naturally have arisen. See Myths and Myth Makers, John Fiske; Mythology of the Aryan Nations, Sir G. W. Cox; A History of Prose Fiction, J. C. Dunlop.
  2. How might a prehistoric parent have invented a story to serve as a physical warning example to his child? Try to reconstruct the circumstances.
  3. Similarly, reconstruct the circumstances in which an ancient hunter might have told of his exploit.
  4. Show how such an exploit would be embroidered until the doer of the deed passed down in tribal history as a super-man, a demi-god, or even a god.
  5. Write a brief account of the professional story-teller of ancient times.
  6. Why do we find the same fundamental stories in many different lands?
  7. Why are many such stories still current today?
  8. Illustrate from your own experience how a favorite story often represents our hopes and our views of life.
  9. In your own observation, and not as a matter of theory, do you believe that a person's preferences in fiction indicate his ideals? Why?
  10. Adduce any reasons, further than those suggested in this chapter, to show that preferences in fiction influence personality in the adult.
  11. Show by example how stories will affect the personality in the child.
  12. Select one or two stories that are calculated to affect the personality dynamically.
  13. Select a class of stories, or one in particular, that should produce some other definite effect—naming the effect, or reaction.
  14. After studying this chapter, add to the list of functions of the story, as called for in the questions appended to Chapter II.
  15. Discuss Forbush's statement that "The story is helpful . . . . because it helps the child to will what is good."

Grist From Other Mills

For the Story Teller, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, contains short but good chapters on "The Apperceptive Basis of Story-Telling" and "The Story with a Sense Appeal." She says:

"We will study stories, then, asking ourselves: What emotion does this story stimulate? By its unpleasant situations, and images, does it inspire fear in a child? Does it make a child happy because of its bubbling good humor? Does it create . . . . sympathy, courage, grief, anger, malice, charity, temperance? Each one of these states of feeling is characterized by bodily expression and we can almost mold character, and influence a child's future life-activity, by means of the stories which we tell him."

"To me the mourning-dove has always seemed a sacred bird, and although I could have killed thousands of them, I have never taken the life of one. When a very small boy at my mother's knee she related to me the story of the winged messenger sent out by Noah to look for real estate. She told me that doves were innocent and harmless birds, and that I must never wrong one in the least. Had my good mother issued an injunction covering the whole animal kingdom, I think I would have grown up as harmless to animals as any Hindoo; for her solemn charge regarding mourning-doves has always seemed as binding as the Ten Commandments. I mention this in order to point out to parents and teachers the vast influence they may easily wield in behalf of our wild creatures, which are in sore need of protection."

William T. Hornaday, American Natural History.    

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