Bonding With Story
by Celia Straus
Who doesn't value the reading of bedtime stories to our children or being read to as a child as one of the treasures of the parent child relationship? The stories that make these brief one-on-one encounters the most magical are the ones that speak to both our souls and the souls of our children at the same time. Whether we know it or not, we are experiencing a special kind of spiritual reading called, in the Catholic Church, Lectio ivina. In Lectio Divina you allow yourself to become so intimate and involved in the words, that the story becomes a sacred text. You allow the words to take on a power of their own in ways that nourish, enlighten and strengthen the bond between you and your child.
It is important that we find the books that invite us and our children to open our hearts. Whether it's a bedtime story for your two year old, or an online book you downloaded for your eighteen year old, carefully chosen stories have the potential to become a child's "sacred texts." By helping your children understand how to connect emotionally with a book, you teach them to read, not only for knowledge and entertainment, but also as a spiritual practice. If our children take ownership of the words in just one story containing spiritual values such as courage, integrity, unconditional love and acceptance, that story can sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, reading aloud, the easiest way to establish a bond through story telling, usually becomes obsolete once our children declare that they are too old to be read to. They can now read for themselves. For me, the end of reading stories aloud that spoke to both my soul and the soul of my youngest daughter, Emily, came when we were enjoying a nightly chapter of Gary Paulsen's novel, Hatchet, a wonderful tale of survival in the wilderness and a boy's coming-of-age. Emily was graciously indulging me, since she was perfectly capable of reading Hatchet herself and, in fact, was reading it after I'd left the room. However, I was lingering over every word, acting out every sentence, knowing that this particular way to bond was drawing to a close.
Our common ground had started with Good Night Moon, Pat the Bunny and The Puppy Who Had No Home , a particularly poignant story, as you may have guessed from the title, which we would read night after night, chanting together "Go away little stray, go away I say." I knew this treasured ritual was over when, as I sat down on her bed, "over the top" with enthusiasm "to find out what happens next in Hatchet," Emily simply said, "Mom, I finished it. He gets rescued." And that was that.
However, once we stop reading aloud to our children, we can still point them toward stories that "open their hearts" with spiritual messages. These are stories about essential values that our children must learn; must feel to their very core to sustain their sense of self and their relationship to God. These are stories which, if given a "spiritual reading", will help them successfully navigate life's journey. Madeleine L'Engle, author of the children's classic, A Wrinkle In Time, chose books for her anthology of spiritual children's books based on how they meet our compelling need for understanding of the Divine. She selects classic children's books like Winnie the Pooh, Wind In The Willows, Charlotte's Web, The Little Prince, Little Women, Emily of New Moon, To Kill a Mocking Bird and Julie Of The Wolves.
However many of these classic children's books are considered old fashioned and unappealing to the youthful reader of the new millenium. A publisher of young adult books recently lamented that preteens and teens don't know what stories to read. As a result, they skip all the stories that might help them in their attempts to make meaning out of life and move on to adult titles. As parents, one of our challenges is to help our older children find young adult books with the same spiritual values as Charlotte's Web or Emily of New Moon. Better yet, we might consider reading the book ourselves so that we can later talk about it together. From this idea came Shireen Dodson's, The Mother Daughter Book Club, a guidebook on how mothers and daughters can bond through stories. Dodson explains how we can share the experience of discovering core spiritual values in a book with our children through informal discussion, craft activities, and even cooking. She then offers a list of books and explains how to build monthly meetings around them.
Modern young adult fiction offering universal and spiritual themes within contemporary storytelling include: Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Slave Day by Rob Thomas, Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden, Driver's Ed by Caroline B. Cooney, and Smack by Melvin Burgess. Here's an example: In this passage from Whirligig, a teenage girl, Alexandra, has discovered the whirligig built and then left on the rocky coast of Maine by Brent, the book's teenage protagonist, as restitution for his crime. She describes its magic to her skeptical friend, Steph. "You can't see the wind, but look what it can do. It's invisible but powerful. Like thoughts. One brings a bunch of junk to life. The other brings desires to life. And it's better if you broadcast your thoughts outside... it symbolizes all unseen forces. It's like electricity - an invisible power that people didn't know existed for centuries. If you learn to use thoughts, you can do all kinds of things. "
Having two teenage daughters, I assure you that preteens and teens like books that are authentic and that grapple with real issues. Some of my daughters' favorites were also mine when I was a young adult such as: A Separate Peace, Catcher In the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Anne Frank, and Summer of My German Soldier. They also appreciated the environmental values found in more contemporary books such as The Legacy of Luna, the true story of Julia Butterfly Hill's two year vigil living in a Redwood tree to protect it from loggers who wanted to cut it down.
Our children may often seem cynical and uncaring but in reality they are searching to know their divinity as they did when they were little. Taking ownership of books with spiritual values opens up new ways of thinking about themselves and their relationships with others. It may even break down their self-imposed isolation and relax the often rigid standards by which they judge themselves and their peers. Reading stories that communicate messages of love, gratitude, compassion and courage moves God from some abstract concept on the outskirts of a young person's life into their very core.
Copyright 2002, Celia Straus