How do we affect what we cannot see?

character lincoln

Nazis occupied Denmark during World War II. Number the Stars, a book by Lois Lowry, is a story about the Nazi occupation. In one scene a Christian girl, wearing a gold chain Star of David, is protecting her Jewish friend. She tears it from her neck and clasps it in her fist moments before Nazi soldiers arrive. She clenches it so tightly that, by the time the soldiers have left, an impression of the Star of David is imprinted in her palm.

A fourth-grade teacher who had read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars to her class passed on the following story to Lowry. On the day the teacher read that particular chapter, she had brought into the class a chain and Star of David similar to the one described in the book. As she read the chapter she had the students pass the chain around the class. And while she was reading she noticed that one student after another pressed the star into his or her palm, making an imprint. [1]

Stories are insidious. Stories pry their way into our mindset. Stories loosen prejudices. Stories open new vistas of thought. Stories broaden our perspectives on life. Stories help create character.

Character—a person’s internal ethical code—is best developed by story.

We do not foster character in our students by

  1. Rules: command and control without conformity
  2. “Tolerance”: a value upon which we can all agree
  3. Modifying behavior: strategies to stamp out hate (“Character Counts!”)
  4. Rewards: incentives making people do the right thing
  5. Measuring outcomes: we quantify what our students produce
  6. Decision-making processes: “what would you do if…?”
  7. Stressing emotion: “How would you feel if someone treated you that way?”
  8. Socialization: by building community we can all come together
  9. Multiculturalism: all viewpoints teach what is right
  10. Using the words “morals” or “values”: what is acceptable in culture
  11. Creating commands to address problems (safe sex, quit smoking, coexist)
  12. Repeating bumper sticker belief (“Athletics builds character”)
  13. Stressing “life is a journey”—destination demands what to know now 

Character is best fostered in our students by

  1. Declaring who we are: fallen human beings (Rom 7:14-25)
  2. Defending an objective, righteous standard (Ps 15)
  3. Describing what good people do (3 John 9-12)
  4. Difficult circumstances transform one’s disposition (Rom 5:3-4)
  5. Depending upon The Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28)
  6. Demonstrating over time (2 Cor 9:13; Phil 2:22)
  7. Dedicating a way of life: habitual consistency (Heb 13:5)
  8. Demanding environments with focus on mission (1 Pet 2:19; 3:16)
  9. Discussing the reality of life through story (Rom 15:4; 1 Co 10:6, 11)
  10. Displaying the direct connection between doctrine and practice (Philemon)
  11. Delivering the lesson through case study (2 Tim 2:16-18)
  12. Defining “restraint,” “virtue,” “civility,” “guilt” (2 Pet 1:3-9)
  13. Drafting affective goals (shame Gen 3:6-7; gratitude Col 3:16)

To help young people develop character we should tell stories. Here are a few examples—

  • The Wretched Stone (the problems with image)
  • Why the Sea is Salt (the problem of greed, misuse)
  • Even Higher (the problem of complainers versus doers)
  • The Fisherman and His Wife (the problem of wanting more)
  • The Marzipan Moon (the problem of ingratitude; leaving well enough alone)
  • The Sword of Damocles (the problem with obsession of power)
  • Androcles and the Lion (the problem of grudge)
  • Grandmother’s Table (the problem of setting the wrong example)
  • The Fox and the Crow (the problem of pride)

[1] William Kilpatrick, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories. Touchstone, 1994, p. 20

Based on a presentation delivered to the ACSI South Bend Convention, Fall, 2005.

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  1. Good stories can open the conversations better than a anything. Some of the newer ones are a great blend with the classics. Thanks, Mark, for the contrasting lists to remind of the manner for these conversations.

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