Building Character: The Magical Power of Reading to Our Children

Throughout time and across cultures, storytelling has been a way to convey ethics, morals, and values. How shall we use story time to nurture good character in our children today?


By Bill Z. Tan


Lately, as I’ve been working to launch an ebook project called Blossom to help parents read with their children in multiple languages, I’ve given a lot of thought as to which books I love reading to my daughter, what books other parents would like to see included and, just as importantly, why.

An epiphany struck me that, when it comes to choosing storybooks for our precious and impressionable little ones, we rely on much more than just star ratings or peer recommendations. We intuitively pick books that exemplify good character and virtuous behavior. The stories that are our perennial favorites have become so not only for their ability to entertain, inform and inspire but also because of the subtle yet powerful ways they nurture moral values and positive character traits within us.

We recognize the lessons bound up in classic children’s tales like Aesop’s Fables. Think of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and its message about honesty. Or “The Tortoise and the Hare,” which so poignantly illustrates the triumph of persistence and humility. In fact, these stories are so ingrained in our consciousness that we know them by heart and they are often the first stories we tell to our kids.



When I look at my daughter’s book collection from that fresh perspective, I see a whole new depth in the contemporary favorites as well. In fact, in the collective pages of these titles, I see the ‘moral tapestry’ I have been weaving with, and for, my five-year-old.


Beyond Aesop, Eric Carle’s grumpy ladybug shows us the importance of being polite, respectful and humble. In “A Sick Day for Amos McGee”, the zoo animals and their keeper celebrate a true friendship where kindness is reciprocated. Through the adventures of Curious George, we share in the joy of his curiosity-fueled explorations and discoveries, learn to accept the shortcomings of others, and witness the power of forgiveness and of a second chance.

Then there are the more complex varieties such as Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”. Is the tree’s unconditional love and giving without its perils? How do we use the boy’s apparent lack of gratitude as a teachable moment? I would love to explore its many layers of moral allegory in a later installment of this multi-part series.



In addition to the usual classifications such as genre, target age or ISBN number, wouldn’t it be great if there’s a way for parents to find books by the values and virtues that are embedded in the pages? I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we may be able to offer that capability in the Blossom ebook library. As a first step, we need a consensus on what those traits are, and a common vocabulary to refer to them.

The field of psychology seems to have a pretty neat answer to offer. The Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV), as illustrated below, is a widely accepted classification that forms the scientific basis for delineating, measuring and cultivating good character. As the counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the CSV handbook (Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, 2004) focuses on what is right about people and the strengths of character that make a fulfilled, happy and good life possible.

Its six core virtues and 24 constituent strengths of character have been shown to be universal throughout time and across cultures. Of course, values and morality as such are not something that can be neatly reduced to a checklist, but the CSV does provide an insightful and manageable framework for our discussion at hand.WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU

Reading to our children is not just a way to develop their literacy skills and fire up their imagination, but also an opportunity to cultivate the values we wish to instill in them. Through the role models and counterexamples that come to life on the pages, we hope to equip them with the mental fortitude to deal with the morally complex world that we live in and enable them to choose the right path forward when we are not there by their side to aid in those decisions.

I feel compelled to write down and share my thoughts, and I’d love to hear from you about your experiences:


  • Which are your favorite books that convey specific values and virtues?
  • Are there books from your childhood that played a role in shaping the person you’ve become?
  • How do you use storytime to help weave your child’s moral tapestry?
  • What kinds of values-imbued books would you like to see more of?


Please join the conversation by sharing your comments below this article. I plan to write a post dedicated to each of the six virtues and the children’s books that are aligned with them and would love to take your comments into consideration in those upcoming installments.


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