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Raising Readers: Building Character and Coping

Updated: May 19, 2020

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There are so many reasons to want your child to love reading. The evidence is clear that children who read outside of school enjoy greater academic success, but research has also shown that it has emotional and social benefits as well. Parents can use books at tools to teach meaningful messages and begin to build character from an early age. In addition, books help children understand and cope with difficult situations.

Books as Teaching Tools

In the first year or two of a child’s life, reading is about bonding with your child and establishing a reading routine as much as it is about language acquisition and making connections to objects and ideas in real life. But somewhere in the toddler years there comes a shift where children are not only learning to read (following a story and comprehending) but also reading to learn (acquiring knowledge and ideas from books). When this happens, books can become a valuable teaching tool in the hands of a parent. This is where we can start to shape their character, which could be considered equally or more important than academic success.

“Toddlers who have lots of stories read to them turn into children who are more likely to enjoy strong relationships, sharper focus and greater emotional resilience and self-mastery. The evidence has become so overwhelming that social scientists now consider read-aloud time one of the most important indicators of a child’s prospects in life.” - Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Enchanted Hour

Books Build Character

Children’s books have a way of using characters to illustrate problems or situations that are removed enough from the child to be nonthreatening, but relatable enough to be transferred. With toddlers and children, the subtle approach is often best and the best children’s books are able to teach, but don't preach. I grew up reading Berenstain Bears books and while some of them are worthwhile, many of the lessons are so obvious that it leaves even the most demure reader wanting to roll their eyes. Children will be more accepting of an idea if they are able to internalize the message and draw their own conclusions.

Empathy, courage, kindness, fairness, honesty, perseverance, respect, responsibility, teamwork, politeness and good citizenship are all virtues that can be exemplified by characters in children’s books and extolled by parents when we catch our children modeling the behavior. Just today I praised my son for being kind and sharing with his brother like Gossie shared with Gertie and helping me clean up like Llama Llama helped his mama. The names of character traits mean nothing unless children have something to connect it with.

Books Help Children Cope

Books can be a bridge to helping a child understand or cope with real emotions like pain, loss or fear. I learned there is a name for it - bibliotherapy - which is a strategy for helping children (and adults) to heal by relating to a character in literature. There are three things that the reader gains from this: universalization (they are not the only ones going through something like this) catharsis (they are able to identify with the character in crisis and their emotions, which in turns help them express with their own) and insight (they can self-reflect and apply their knowledge). Books have a place in the healing process, especially for children and should be prescribed as readily as medicine. The trick is to find the right book, for the right child at the right time. There are so many book bloggers out there with book lists, but I can recommend Everyday Reading and Happily Ever Elephants to begin your search because they do a good job of categorizing by theme.

How to Tame Your [Fear of] Dragons

Last spring I gave birth to my second son and in anticipation of his arrival, I signed my toddler up for a week-long art camp in the summer, knowing that he would need special attention and a creative outlet during this time of transition. My husband is a teacher so he could accompany him, affording me some quiet time with the baby.

What I did not anticipate was the two-foot tall statue of a dragon that guarded the entrance of the museum scaring the bejeezus out of him. My husband forged ahead to the room where the classes were being held, but when it was time to leave, he had to carry my toddler out crying past the mythical paper mache creature. The next day, when they arrived in the parking lot of the museum, my toddler became hysterical declaring he didn’t want to go, that he was afraid of the dragon. My husband persevered and carried him in and out of the building, but each day that passed my son’s anxiety and fear grew despite our talking about being brave and how Daddy keeps him safe.

I should back up and mention that my son had reacted similarly when he saw a statue of a dog (and he loves dogs) but we were concerned and puzzled as to how to deal with this so I did what any modern parent would do - I Googled it. “Fear of statues… fear of dragons…” I found an article talking about using books as a way to alleviate fears by portraying whatever it is that your child is afraid of in a positive or non-threatening way.

So I Googled “books about dragons” and we proceeded immediately to the library to check out Puff the Magic Dragon. The illustrations showed a gentle giant flying lizard who is embraced tenderly by a girl at the end. We also found an animated version with the soothing Peter, Paul and Mary melody and talked about how Puff was a friendly dragon ad nauseam.

The next day was the last day of art camp and I decided to bring the baby and accompany them to observe. When we pulled into the parking lot, my toddler was no longer terrified. When we walked in, he waved to “Puff” and said “hi” and “bye” when we left. The week ended on a high note but what was even more exciting was the astounding transformation in our child. A single book had enabled him to slay his dragon, or in this case, befriend it.

Since my husband and I are both English teachers, this should not have been a light bulb moment for us, but as parents learning as we go, it absolutely was. Ever since I have been on my soapbox about the magic of books to empower and equip children for real life.

How to Use Books as a Teaching Tool

The simple act of reading a book is good medicine, but sometimes you need to be Mary Poppins with her spoonful of sugar to get the full effect. This is what English teachers do. We question and probe deeper to make students think and help draw out the author’s message or make connections to themselves without actually telling them what to think. You are your child’s first teacher and this is where you'll have to put in the work. Talk about the character's motivations, feelings, and behaviors. Find those key moments to pause and ask them how they would feel in a given situation. Give them space to talk about their observations.

Recognizing the Teachable Moment in Gossie

Here’s an example of how to use a children’s book as a teaching tool using Gossie. Gossie is a gosling who loves her red boots; she wears them every day, everywhere. One day, they go missing and she searches everywhere for them until she sees them on someone else’s feet! Stop. Before you turn the page, this is where you ask your child what they think is going to happen or how they would feel if some took something they loved without asking. Let them answer without judgement. What happens next will most likely be the opposite of how your child thinks Gossie would react, which makes it even more touching . She still loves her red boots, but sometimes she wears one and lets her friend wear the other. It’s not that Gossie was selfish to begin with, but she chooses to share because it makes someone else happy. You may have to help them put it into words, but allow your child to arrive at this conclusion as much as possible.

Recommendations: Best Books for Building Character

These are just a few topics and examples of books with a message that we enjoy. I love to share books for toddlers that we love, but remember: you are the curator of your children's library when it comes to finding the best books that align with your family values and using them as teaching tools.

It works, I swear.

What other books are good for teaching a lesson or sending a meaningful message?


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