WASHINGTON — Parents can use books to teach values and explain difficult situations to their children, a member of the faculty at the Catholic University of America says.
Parables, Scriptures and folk tales are excellent tools for teaching children how to behave and live in accordance with social values, says Mary June Roggenbuck, associate professor of library science at the college's School of Library and Information Science.
Values and morals are easily taught in children's books because in a story the abstract becomes concrete, she says.
"Kindness, charity, consideration of others--these concepts and others are translated into reality and captured in a person or character," she says. "Contemporary children's books often use animals as the leading characters, as do many fables and folk tales from the past."
Roggenbuck lists Frederick the Mouse as an example of a popular book character.
"Frederick writes a poem re-creating the beauty of the past summer. His poem makes it possible for all the mice to withstand the winter's severity," she says.
"In the book, 'Frederick,' author Leo Lionni uses the little mouse to show that although it is good to be busy preparing for the future, reflection is also important. Those who value being busy may forget many of life's pleasurable and important moments and experiences."
Many modern books tend to use realistic stories to achieve these same ends--teaching children how to behave and make things turn out for the best, Roggenbuck says.
"Stories about sibling rivalry or difficulties of children who don't have social skills are often used in an undidactic way to foster interpersonal relations," she says.
"Families may find it easier to discuss problems such as divorce after reading a story about it."
Some books outline the stages of a problem and prepare children for certain events and feelings.
"Divorce is a long process," Roggenbuck says. "First, there is quarreling and separation. Children often keep feelings to themselves. Sensitive children are less inclined to talk.
"In the middle stages, a parent may move out of the house. Children may have to face questions and explain changes in their lives to their classmates. Younger children don't seem to mind, but older ones are concerned because of peer pressure and logistics.
"Joint custody, sharing a bedroom, lost clothing, the strange situation without one parent, how they are now different from others--all these issues can be discussed through characters and plots in books."
Books can also bring out a child's innermost fears, such as illness or child abuse, she adds.
"Stories can assure children that others are going through the same rough times. Books about fears can give children a vocabulary to articulate concerns and become more comfortable with topics such as sex education."
Parents can discuss a story with their children, she says, and bring a child closer to the problem by asking questions such as "What do you think of the solution?"
Because stories are often about feelings, a parent might ask, "Have you ever felt like the character in the story?"
Roggenbuck points out that this approach of leading a child through a thinking process differs from that of the 19th-Century moralistic tale, where the conclusion is stated at the end.
But not all books are effective, she warns. "Some are too preachy or technical. Some writers may not be too interested in the topic they are writing about."
She advises parents to check with librarians and go to the library story hours to find the best books.
"And, above all, parents should enjoy reading the books themselves. Children sense pleasure."
When her college students were asked what their favorite childhood books were, she says, what they remembered was sitting on a parent's lap to hear stories read.
" 'The Night Before Christmas' was a universal favorite," she says. "Other poems and stories such as 'The Velveteen Rabbit,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'The Ugly Duckling' and 'The Snow Goose' are beautifully written, and parents don't need to reiterate and explain. That is what makes a story special."