How Stories Develop Us

Not every evening is the occasion for a life lesson. In fact, most nights we're too tired for anything too challenging. Often we opt for a silly rhyme book or a review of the basics: colors, numbers, the ABCs. On those evenings I know the kids are happy just to have some time of physical closeness and affection. And they're associating a learning activity with a loving one.

Thankfully there are evenings when we're up for a character-shaping story. And as children grow older, their ability to absorb more challenging and complex stories grows, as does their need for inspiring tales. If you start when they're young, there's a good chance they'll love books when they most need them.

In his book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles recalls his mother's attempts to use literature to reach him during his turbulent teen years. "When I was a high schooler of 16 and inclined to be moody and troublesome at home,” he writes, “my mother bought me a copy of War and Peace and asked me earnestly, pleadingly, to spend the summer reading it."

Though he protested in her presence, he "took to reading the novel, but on the sly." It took Coles until the end of high school to finish the story, but the masterpiece was working on him. He developed a deep love of literature and went on — after earning degrees in pediatric medicine, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis — to use the same stories that shaped him to teach students in the schools of medicine, business, divinity and government at Harvard and other distinguished universities.

On many evenings I'd much rather collapse on the couch than take the time to read to my children. But 15 minutes of story time is a small investment with the potential for big returns.

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