I chose four children's classics: Charlotte's web (1952) by E.B. White, and other three children's fairy tales, two by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (Cinderella and Snow white and the seven dwarfs) and one by Charles Perrault (Sleeping Beauty). These were among my personal childhood favorites. Looking back on all four as an adult, I see many similarities, but also many differences, in these books' inherent moral messages. All have been positively reviewed (e.g., have received awards or good critical reviews, and/or have stood the test of time). Each contains many distinct moral messages, some plain, others less so. Each also deals with situations that require moral decisions.
Charlotte's web is a story about eight-year-old Fern, who, while growing up on a farm, loves and nurtures a pet pig, Wilbur. Wilbur grows up (with help from Fern and various animal friends, including a wise and virtuous spider named Charlotte) into an admired, prize-winning adult pig. He is therefore spared being slaughtered to be used for food, a healthy adult pig's usual fate. The story emphasizes, in positive, uplifting ways: achievement; nurturance; cooperation; endurance; taking chances; doing one's best; kindness; honesty, and caring. White's intention, in Charlotte's web, was to offer a compassionate window into lives, thoughts, and emotions of animals (Hartmann, 2002). Pigs, White suggests, are intelligent animals, with many human-like capabilities and emotions, including those for friendship and love. Values of empathy practiced and upheld by the main character, Fern, within Charlotte's Web, reflect diminution of "egocentric thought" that typically takes place, in normal childhood development, during the third of Piaget's four stages of cognitive development, the Formal Operational Stage (Elementary and early adolescence) (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).
Moreover, achievement is emphasized, through Fern's initiative toward, and achievement of saving Wilbur's life when her father plans to kill him; through Fern's raising Wilbur as a pet, and through Fern's helping save Wilbur's life again at the end (with help from Charlotte and other animals) through unconventional, imaginative means. Nurturance, cooperation, endurance, and taking chances are all emphasized, within this story, particularly within the main action after Wilbur is sold to Mr. Zuckerman, and Fern comes to visit him there. This is also the part of the story in which Fern, Charlotte, Templeton the Rat, and other animals both nurture and encourage Wilbur; cooperate in order to help Charlotte write complimentary words about Wilbur inside her web, and endure hardship and frustration when weather, human beings, and other forces, do not aid their efforts. Taking chances is emphasized early on, when Fern stops her father from killing Wilbur. Doing one's best, kindness, and caring are apparent from Fern's nurturing Wilbur. Honesty is shown in Fern's willingness to tell others, even when they laugh at her, of her love and concern for Wilbur, and her disappointment when he is sold.
Charlotte's web is, in my opinion, a good example of a children's book that might be used to promote "character education." Character education that stresses morality and ethics, in addition to intellectual knowledge, according to Brynildssen (2002), is intended:
to instill in America's youth not merely information but also the character traits known to promote success and happiness in life, and which will best enable young people to maximize their use of their education and knowledge. One approach that shows particular promise is that of using children's literature as a pedagogical device. (Character education through children's literature).
Nucci (1987), in synthesizing research on teaching morality in classroom settings, suggests moral education should center on matters of "justice, fairness and human welfare" (p. 86). Within Charlotte's web, beliefs, attitudes, and actions of the main character, Fern, include all of these, as well as compassion, empathy, honesty, patience, imagination, creativity, and a sense of fair play (Mills, 2000). According to Harris (2000) the beginnings of the appreciation of such moral values is typical within children in Piaget's or Erickson's earliest stage of childhood moral development (under age 11) (the age group most likely to read Charlotte's web) For better or worse, one characteristic Charlotte's web does not emphasize is competition, at least not much. (There is some emphasis on competition when Wilbur competes at the fair). Charlotte's web emphasizes doing right in order to:
(1) have a good life (in terms of saving Wilbur the pig's life that is, therefore allowing Fern to feel better, and to better enjoy her own life); and (2) do the right thing in and of itself (for Wilbur).
Charlotte's Web does not, however, emphasize doing right in order to:
(1) be liked or appreciated;
(2) avoid punishment, or (3) follow the law
Further, within Charlotte's Web, values that are emphasized include:
Reasoning for acting moral includes:
1. Concern for others
3. Respect for others
Consequences for acting bad are that:
1. Others will scorn one or doubt one's intentions (e.g., Templeton the Rat)
2. Others may lose their lives (e.g., Wilbur)
Other: (Rewards for using teamwork, intelligence, and imagination):
1. One's friends will be helped
2. One can feel that one has done one's best, whatever the outcome
Comparisons between Charlotte's web, a 20th century book about a girl, and three of the best-known and loved fairy tales, also stories about girls, but much older ones, interested me in terms of inherent comparisons that might be made about values such as achievement; risk taking, imagination, initiative, etc., especially since, as psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim states, in his landmark book The Uses of Enchantment, "In a fairy tale, external processes are internalized, and become comprehensible as represented by the figures in the story and their events" (p. 25).
In Cinderella, a young girl with a wicked stepfather and two wicked stepsisters (and a father who does not stand up for her) toils at menial, sooty tasks (thus her nickname, Cinderella). Her stepmother and stepsisters are at leisure. Still, Cinderella has a pure, virtuous heart (doing one's best; kindness, honesty). For example, when Cinderella's father asks each sister what they wish for him to bring them from an upcoming trip, one wants fine clothes, another jewels, but Cinderella says "Father break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home" (Grimm, 74). She plans to plant this atop her mother's grave (nurturance; caring).
When Cinderella receives the requested branch, she plants it atop her mother's grave. It grows into a beautiful tree (nurturance). Moreover, "Thrice a day Cinderella went and sat beneath it, and wept and prayed, and a little white bird always came on the tree, and if Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for" (Grimm, 75). Here, Cinderella's humility and virtue are rewarded, in the form of a white bird (with magic power) that befriends her (cooperation) after her demonstrated endurance, kindness, honesty, and caring.
Cinderella wishes, like her stepsisters, to attend the festival where a handsome prince will seek a bride (taking chances). This is refused by her stepmother because, "You have no clothes and shoes" (Grimm, 76). The stepmother pretends to protect Cinderella from ridicule; instead she wants less competition for her own daughters. Cinderella is ordered to help her stepsisters get ready, exemplifying rivalry among Cinderella, the stepmother, and the stepmother's blood daughters (competition). However, the white bird, (and other birds) fly to Cinderella's aid (cooperation). Soon Cinderella is at the festival after all, and belle of the ball no less, wearing a beautiful golden gown. Here, Cinderella is essentially rewarded for virtuous passivity and endurance of hardship, rather than initiative or achievement. At the festival, she need only be beautiful to attract the prince. Gilbert and Gubar point out in the Grimms' day "all women were enjoined to be submissive and modest in relation to men" (p. 12). And, as Simone de Beauvoir notes: "In woman dressed and adorned, nature is present but under restraint, by human will molded nearer to man's desire" (The second sex, p. 179). Cinderella is the Prince's physical ideal. As the story suggests, beauty (combined with virtuousness and passivity), rather than imagination or initiative, as Fern demonstrates in Charlotte's web, is the key to happiness.
Cinderella emphasizes doing right in order to:
(1) have a good life (marry the Prince and live happily ever after)
(2) do the right thing (honor her mother's memory; allow fate to reward virtue).
(3) be liked or appreciated (by the Prince, by not being dishonest, like her stepsisters, about rather the slipper fits)
(4) avoid punishment (from her stepmother, for not doing her various tedious chores)
Cinderella does not emphasize doing right in order to:
(1) follow the law
Values that are emphasized within Cinderella include:
(1) respecting another's memory (her mother's)
(2) lack of greed or possessiveness
(4) hard work
Reasoning for acting moral includes:
(1) Respect for others (e.g., Cinderella's respect for her mother's…