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Podcast: Using Stories to Help Kids Understand Right and Wrong (Betsy Childs Howard)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Biblical Truth for Kids

In this episode, Betsy Childs Howard, author of Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up, discusses stories and the importance of moral formation for children. She talks about why stories are such a powerful tool for instilling deep, biblical truths in our kids, how the world influences our children everyday even in ways that might surprise us, and why intentional moral formation and an emphasis on the gospel of God's grace are not mutually exclusive.

Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up

Betsy Childs Howard

In easy-to-understand language and engaging images, this storybook shows children ages 3–7 the freedom that comes through confessing sin rather than trying to cover it up. A TGC Kids book.

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Summary of the Story

01:16

Matt Tully
When I brought home this new book that you've written—it's called Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up—we sat down on the couch after work and I pulled it out of my bag and I opened it up and read it to them. I have to say, as soon as I finished reading it, the first response from all three of the kids was "Again!" And then I read it again to them and they said "Again!" So I read it again. They literally asked me to read it three times in a row, even the one-year-old. And that has continued since then. It's interesting to see this staying power of the book with them and their interest in it. Before we jump in here, could you summarize the story for us? What it's the book about? What happens?

Betsy Childs Howard
I'm so glad to hear that your kids like it! The book is about a little boy named Arlo, and he is in the middle of a quiet rest time on his bed. He does something that many children do at some point in their life, which is draw on the wall; and then he regrets it and does what is a natural impulse, which is he wants to cover it up. He doesn't want his mom to know he's drawn on the wall, so this starts a big cover-up where he pulls together lots of toys and stacks them up and he goes to great lengths and gets more and more anxious and upset as he tries to cover up this naughty thing that he's done. As you might expect, his mother recognizes there's something a bit fishy about a tall tower of toys in front of his wall. She finds out his sin and he does what Adam and Eve did, which is they hid from God when they sinned. Arlo hides from his mother, but she finds him and confronts him about the fact that he's drawn on the wall. Much to his surprise, he actually feels great relief when his mother finds out his sin. They reconcile, she forgives him, he still gets punished, but he realizes that covering up his sin—covering up this naughty thing that he did—made him really miserable. So it's a basic story about why we don't want to cover up sin, whether it's from our parents or from God. It's best not to sin in the first place, but when we do sin, hiding only makes things worse. The illustrations are done by a woman named Samara Hardy, and I credit your kids wanting to read it over and over again probably to her illustrations, because they're just really detailed and interesting and the kind of thing that kids love.

The Compelling Nature of Reconciliation

04:09

Matt Tully
Yeah, they are. The illustrations are beautiful, and I would describe them as a bit whimsical. There are lots of bright colors and lots of detail, as you said, and they're just really fun. I think one of the other things, as I've been thinking about my kids and what it was about the book that has grabbed their attention, my one-year- old can't even say his Rs yet, but he'll ask for "A-lo". He'll go find it on the bookshelf and pull it down. I think one of the things that they seem interested in is the fact that it's a story about a boy who does something wrong. He does something that he knows is wrong and then the whole story, as you said, is him trying to cover it up and hide it. I've just been thinking, why is it that that's so compelling to them and so interesting for them to look at and then see the reconciliation that happens at the end with his mom? Did you think about? Have you ever noticed that about kids, and was that part of the story for you?

Betsy Childs Howard
Yes. If you think about a story where nobody does anything wrong, there's just not really a plot there. There are lots of great instructional children's books that teach them things; but if you're really thinking about a story, a plot usually involves something either going wrong or someone has to do something wrong. I think children are fascinated by reading about naughtiness—for good and for ill—but I think that a lot of our children's books are very, very sanitized in a way that just makes them boring to children, whereas the Bible is not the least bit sanitized. The Christian faith—the story of salvation—there's a tremendous amount of plot to that, there's plenty of people who do things wrong. I know some parents don't want their children to read about naughty children because they think they'll get ideas, but children have no problem coming up with their own ideas for naughty things to do. So I do believe that many of the best children's books and stories include children doing something wrong in a way that doesn't enforce or encourage other children to do that, but hopefully like this one shows the outworking of it and helps the children not want to do that thing that Arlo did, but rather avoid it.

Matt Tully
I was struck by just how simple the story is, it's not complex, there's only two characters—I guess there's a cat, as well, who's kind of always around making faces that I think telegraph what the reader should be feeling.

Betsy Childs Howard
Exactly. Yes, the cat looks more nervous than Arlo does in the beginning, as the children are also feeling nervous when he starts to draw on the wall.

Inspiration for the Story

07:06

Matt Tully
And that's the thing is it feels so familiar. It's just such a simple little story and because of that it connects with kids who have all been there and who have all, in their own ways, willfully disobeyed their parents and then tried to hide it. It made me wonder about other kid's books that do this well—were there any other books that inspired you on this? How did you try to do it your own way or a little bit differently?

Betsy Childs Howard
There wasn't a book in particular, but I believe that stories—really good stories—have the power to help form our moral imaginations. By "moral imaginations" I mean that they help us think about the outworkings of what a particular behavior would be. So a classic example is Peter Rabbit. The mother rabbit tells him not to go in Mr. McGregor's garden. He does it. He's really sorry. He realizes his mother knew what she was doing all along. So in having these examples—these negative examples like Arlo or Peter Rabbit—they're not going to necessarily keep a child from doing something wrong, but it does give them the chance to think through Wow, if I did this, maybe it wouldn't turn out well, or Now I have done this; maybe covering it up from my mom is not going to turn out well. It just helps them learn from others' mistakes in a way that they don't have to repeat it themselves. They may still repeat it—we're all sinful—it's certainly not going to be foolproof in helping them always make the right choices; but many, many great classic children's stories include behavior that helps children not repeat it.

Use of Stories for Teaching Values

09:15

Matt Tully
I know I've I felt this before when it comes to reading literature or even reading the Bible, there can be this sense of Just tell me what the right thing is. Tell me what to do. Give me the straight, didactic teaching for what the principle is. We kind of lose patience with the value of a story illustrating a principle or an idea. And yet, stories can, as you said, be so powerful for imparting those truth principles and those values. Do you think part of the loss of some of this among parents is that perhaps we think we moved beyond the need for stories like this?

Betsy Childs Howard
I think that it feels more efficient to impart information through just teaching your children, and I think sometimes parents might be afraid that a story isn't going to get the message across clearly enough. I think we need both. We need to instruct our children, we need to help them learn Bible verses, catechize them; but that alone isn't enough. I think we also need to engage their imaginations and their hearts to take things a step further. Stories can help us feel the way we ought to feel about God's commands. For example, say you have a teenager—so we're thinking a little bit older—and you explain to a teenager why it's good to live within your means and not go into debt. You can draw figures on a piece of paper and they can cognitively understand it. But then later if they read a book, like Great Expectations, and they see someone make choices that lead them into debt and the kind of anguish and helplessness that comes with that, all of a sudden they're going to feel the way they ought to feel about it. So I think that you need the teaching, you need the straight teaching of what are God's commands, what is right and wrong, what is the law of our country? But it's also good to bring a story element in to help engage the emotions so that we feel the way we ought to feel about these things.

Matt Tully
So that's the big value of a story is that it helps to make us feel the right way about something, not just intellectually knowing the right answer.

Betsy Childs Howard
I think that's primarily it. Yes. And sometimes it stays with us longer. Like your children, for example: I'm sure they could tell you the whole story of Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up because it's a plot and it's lodged in their imagination in a way that if you just told them before bed, If you do something wrong, don't hide it from mommy and daddy. They may or may not remember that. Stories can be an aid to really getting something deep in our hearts.

Moral Formation through Books

12:20

Matt Tully
Over the last few years it seems like there's been this wonderful resurgence of children's books from a Christian worldview and perspective, and many of those books have focused on retelling Bible stories, even retelling the broader gospel narrative of Scripture—the history of redemption—and they've been such a treasure and a valuable thing for so many parents with young kids all the way up to older children. And yet, it seems like there's not as many explicitly Christian books aimed at kids focused on this idea of moral formation. Have you noticed that, and why do you think that might be?

Betsy Childs Howard
Yes, I think you're exactly right. I love the books that teach the big story of Scripture and theology, and I'm thrilled with those. I think the reason that Christians—particularly Reformed evangelical Christians who have a high value for the gospel—I think they can be afraid that if they try to do moral formation, they will be guilty of moralism. But I really think moral formation and moralism are two very different things. Moral formation is teaching—at its most basic definition—it's teaching the difference between right and wrong. Christian moral formation is teaching right from wrong according to the Bible and God's commands. Moralism, on the other hand, is a kind of self-salvation where you believe that if you do the right things, God will love you and reward you and that ultimately you can save yourself by doing the right things. We don't always put it that explicitly, but sometimes we teach that through what we model and through the way we live our lives. So I think that people worry that if you have a book about why a child should tell the truth, they may then walk away from that and think, Oh, if I tell the truth, that will save me. If I do everything right, that will save me. I don't think that's actually the case. I think that stories that aid in moral formation—and moral formation in general—is a really important part of parenting. Unless children are formed morally and know the difference between right and wrong, they won't understand what sin is and they won't understand their need for the gospel. So moral formation has a formative role before a child really understands the gospel, that first they have to understand what sin is and how it separates them from God and that they can't keep God's law and they can't do it all right. So that's an important part of moral formation. And then once the child has accepted the gospel and really believes it, moral formation still has a role because God's commands are good. All through the Scripture—in the Old and New Testament—we are told that God's children delight to keep his commands. He's our creator, he made us, and it's a treasure to have the moral law of God to be able to attempt to keep it; and when we don't keep it, to then come to him, confess, repent, and be reconciled to him. So I think it's very important that in running from moralism and recognizing that we can't save ourselves and our children can't save themselves by their good behavior, they still need to be taught the difference between right and wrong. If you go to a bookstore—a secular bookstore—and look through the children's section, there are so many engaging stories that are doing moral formation from a very secular worldview. They might not be teaching them to tell the truth; they might be teaching children to live their own truth—whatever that is—to be true to themselves. There's all these messages saying what is right and wrong is deep inside you. I think Christian parents, Christian teachers, pastors will really miss out on doing moral formation through the stories that we read to our children.

Awareness of Secular Messages

16:43

Matt Tully
That's so interesting. What are some of those other secular messages that our children are being fed all the time, whether it's through books or through movies or TV shows or games—are there any other messages beyond the "look inside yourself, that's where you're going to find strength" come to mind?

Betsy Childs Howard
It's interesting how many picture books written for young children are there to form their minds in the way they think about sexuality without ever mentioning sex or gender. One I found was called Red: A Crayon's Story and it's about a crayon that has a red paper on it. All the other crayons—its teachers, parents—they all want it to color red, but it only ever colors blue. And finally, in the end, it turns out that it had the wrong paper on and really, it was a blue crayon all along. I may have this backwards—it may have been a red crayon that had a blue paper. But basically, it's not very subtle if you recognize this is teaching about a child being born into the wrong body and everyone wanting it to act like a girl when it really feels like a boy deep down on the inside. So you have this really heavy-handed moral message, but it's slipped into a pretty delightful story about this crayon that can't color the color everybody wants it to. So those are the kinds of moral messages being taught to children every day. I'm sure most parents have had the experience of bringing home a book from the library and having no idea until you got halfway through that this is teaching your children something very different from a Scriptural worldview.

Laying Groundwork in Young Lives

18:31

Matt Tully
I'm struck by how strategic it is to reach children with some of these messages. It's an insight that it seems like secular people understand and that's why they create these TV shows and books that will do this stuff. Do you think there is something unique about children and using these young ages as a chance to teach them and lay this foundational moral groundwork for them for the rest of their lives?

Betsy Childs Howard
I do. I think youth is when you are going to be morally formed. I think stories are a big part of that. Things can sometimes go deeper through a story. For example, I'm just thinking about the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia. Those are such a great example of a series that has an allegory—there's Christian messages all through it—although someone can read it and not even know those are there. There are many people who've read those as children, or had them read aloud, that later as adults they come back and read it and realize, Wow! These are some really sophisticated philosophical arguments that C. S. Lewis is making. I didn't even know it, but reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child primed me later on to understand and accept these things and to see how God's truth makes sense of the world. So I think reading great books and stories early on can help children, teenagers, and young adults later on resonate with the truth when they encounter it, and also recognize lies as well hopefully.

Fear and Sin

20:30

Matt Tully
There are a number of themes that you hit on in the book in a pretty subtle way; but as I was reading it again recently, I was just struck by there's so many of these moral themes—moral principles, even—that are there that I think kids will start to get. So I wonder if we could walk through a couple of those. The first was just that there seemed to be this idea that you're getting at that the fear of getting caught from our sin can actually propel us further into more sin in an effort to hide that. What were you thinking about that idea when you were writing the book?

Betsy Childs Howard
I think that is just something that all humans have in common. Earlier I referenced Adam and Eve—they hid from God in the garden. Little children think if they put their hand in front of their eyes that you can't see them. But we serve an omniscient God. He sees all of our sin. I think that impulse to hide our sin and to cover up what we've done wrong is part of our desire to save ourselves. We think, Maybe if God doesn't know I've done this, or maybe if my parents don't know I've done this, it'll be as if I haven't done it. But really, the only help for us—for children—to get out of the huge mess that we've made of the world and of our lives is to have outside help from God. We need a savior. So really, it's only when we recognize and admit what we've done wrong that God can make things right for us.

A Lesson for All Sinners

22:23

Matt Tully
I think probably my favorite part of the story is when he has written on his wall and then he piles up all of his toys on his bed, making this mountain of toys in an effort to cover it up. Then his mom comes in and he's hiding under the bed and it's such an obvious, comical scene where he's thinking maybe he can hide. It's interesting though because as I'm reading this my kids and I'm asking them along the way, What's Arlo doing? Oh, he's hiding. Do you think his mom knows what's going on and knows where he is? Because it's a story, they're able to see the true picture there and see through that. As I read that, I was struck by the realization of how I do that with God as well. Sometimes these kinds of stories can help us to even reflect back on ourselves a little bit differently.

Betsy Childs Howard
It's true because just as it's ridiculous for a little boy to think his mom doesn't know he's under the bed, it's crazy for us to think that we can run from God or that we can somehow clean ourselves up enough that God won't see our sin. But we all do it. It's wonderful to step back and to be able to laugh with this little boy hiding from his mom, and at the same time laugh at ourselves, that we would ever try to hide from God, because it's just impossible. But thank God it's impossible.

The Power of Forgiveness

23:50

Matt Tully
That's one of the things that I also love about the book and that I think sets it apart and helps to guard against the moralism—the fear of moralism that you were talking about earlier—and it's that there is this confession and then there's the relief of forgiveness that comes at the end. There's a restoration there that is really moving and beautiful. What were some of the important truths you were trying to capture there at the end?

Betsy Childs Howard
There's the problem of Arlo now having a big, muddy-looking mess on his wall, because when he tries to clean it up himself it just gets worse. He needs his mother to help him get it off the wall. But even more important than that is for him to be reconciled and forgiven by his mother. So even as he does get consequences—he has his screen time taken away for a couple of days—I wanted there to be this sense of there are consequences for our sin; but even those consequences, when he's wrapped in his mother's embrace, he recognizes it's so much better than if she didn't know his sin. And I think with us, I want people to feel that same hunger to be back in right fellowship with God. When God looks at us he sees Christ's righteousness, but when we're actively sinning and turning back from God's law—even as believers—there's a broken fellowship. When we confess our sin and repent of it and accept God's forgiveness, there's such a wonderful sense of being embraced by him. So I wanted parents and children both to see that.

Punishment for Wrong

25:42

Matt Tully
One of the other themes that the book addresses is the idea of discipline and, as you mentioned before, the mom takes away Arlo's screen time for a couple of days. I think one of the most challenging things parents can wrestle with is how do I balance appropriately disciplining my kids—having consequences for their disobedience—and yet also modeling and showing them grace and showing them what it looks like to have punishment taken away? What advice would you offer to parents along those lines? How do you bring those two things together?

Betsy Childs Howard
We see the Bible talk about God's discipline for his children and that a parent who loves their child will discipline them the same way that God disciplines his children. If you look at families where there is a lack of discipline and there are no consequences for doing wrong, you tend to have a lot of yelling in those families, a lot of friction between the parents and the children because the children aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing. That just kind of goes on and on; whereas I think when parents are wise in how they discipline and there are swift and fair consequences when children disobey, it helps with that reconciliation process. Both the parent and the child understand this wrong has been dealt with, this child has been given consequences, and now we can move on. Rather than, I just want to punish the child by being angry with them for a while and Maybe mom will forget about it and then things will go back to normal. That, to me, is the worst case scenario because there's just not a clear path to reconciliation. That is very different from the way that we are saved through Christ, because he is the one that took the penalty. So I think that there are ways to talk about it with your children so that you can help them understand that you're disciplining them and giving them a consequence or punishment because you love them and this will help them learn not to do this again. At the same time, you can also teach them how salvation works. Christ paid our penalty. He took our consequence for us. So it's a different situation, but I think discipline and consequences help children learn that when you do something wrong, there is a price that then has to be paid. In most cases, children pay that consequence through some sort of punishment; but in the case of salvation—which is much bigger and we could never even pay for what we've done wrong—Christ did that for us.

Encouragement for Disciplining Children

28:47

Matt Tully
What encouragement would you offer to the parent listening right now who has young children, this is the kind of book that they might read with their children, and they're just feeling maybe a little bit overwhelmed? Maybe they're dealing with a strong-willed child who doesn't listen well, is disobedient, and maybe they haven't done a great job disciplining their children consistently and in the right ways and they just feel discouraged and unsure how to move forward. What word of encouragement would you offer to that person?

Betsy Childs Howard
I think one thing that can overwhelm parents sometimes is feeling like they have to include the whole gospel in every teaching moment and every conversation. I would try to narrow things down and make it a little bit more manageable. Sometimes you might just be teaching your child the difference between right and wrong, and that will then come into play later on when you have conversations about sin and forgiveness and the gospel. I think parents can maybe scale down their expectations. This may be counter to what some other people would say; but when they're very young, you're teaching them not to put their hands in the electric socket. That is just something you need to teach your children not to do for their own safety. Later on there are moral lessons that they just need to learn for the ability to function in the world. And then as they grow, God will give you opportunities to talk about the gospel, salvation, and why we can't live up to his plan. I think sometimes that fear of moralism—that fear of their children thinking they only love them if they do right—I think just recognize the God-given task that God gives parents to train up a child in the way that he or she should go. And then to also train them up in the gospel alongside that, but not to feel like every single instance of discipline is a time where you need to get the whole story of salvation into that one incident.

Matt Tully
I can see that. I've felt the pressure at times, whenever any child does anything wrong and there needs to be any kind of correction, there's just maybe a latent guilt of Oh, I wasn't able to sit down face to face for five minutes and talk through the whole gospel with them and kind of explain it in that context. I think sometimes we can think the discipline has to always happen that way, but you're saying maybe you can let go a little bit of that at times, depending on the situation.

Betsy Childs Howard
I think so, especially if that's going to keep you from disciplining them. I would hope that you would establish good patterns of when a child is disobedient, swift correction. And hopefully there will be an ongoing conversation of why you're disciplining them, what they did wrong. But I think if you make it such a big deal that you have to have this long, protracted episode, you're probably going to be less likely to actually administer the discipline and then the child won't learn to be obedient in the way that they should. So I would say consistency is the first thing to shoot for. And then as you establish that consistency, hopefully you won't have to discipline as often and can have more times for those big conversations about grace and forgiveness.

Matt Tully
It's good to remember, too, that parenting is a multi-year type of endeavor and that there are many opportunities for conversations. It's not as if any one conversation is going to make or break your efforts to form your child.

Betsy Childs Howard
Exactly.


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