(c) 2013, 2014 Vangelo Media, all rights reserved.

The Gift of Life Lessons

It Depends.

Is that an invitation to ‘cop out’ and avoid making a decision or is it an acknowledgment that there is no single answer to moral dilemmas?

Does might make right?

Should you give a hungry man a fish or teach him how to fish? 

Should you live life in service of others or in service of self?

We are confronted with these types of moral questions on a daily basis.  Some are small, bordering on trivial, while others are large and life changing.  Ultimately, our lives are defined by how we have addressed them.  The answers to these questions teach us life lessons and they have a direct bearing on whether our lives are fulfilling and harmonious or empty and full of strife. 

Unfortunately, there is often no right answer to any of these questions and ‘it depends’ becomes the pivotal issue.  Let’s take the question of whether or not might makes right.  Immediately we think of the despot that rules with tyranny.  Or the bully who is prohibiting us from doing something that we enjoy.  In these cases, the answer is obvious.  The counter example however, is the parent who stops the child from doing something enjoyable but dangerous.  Bullies and tyrants do not live harmonious, fulfilling lives, but a good parent will.

Does Might Makes Right?

‘Might makes right’ is an excellent example of a moral concept that is difficult for young children to understand.  On the one hand, human beings, like all animals are born with the instinct of survival of the fittest.  Children quickly learn to grab and take what they want without even recognizing that their actions impact others.  Eventually, as a child experiences life with other children, he learns that his actions do indeed affect others.  It is at this point that the concept of ‘sharing’ becomes relevant.  Soon, children learn to use sharing, or more precisely the act of not sharing as a weapon.  The degree to which the child is able to maintain control over the prized object is the degree to which he is able to wield power.  As adults, we generalize this into the concept of ‘might makes right’.  For children, it is much more basic, almost instinctual and expressed in a single, very concrete word ‘mine’.

Aesop's Fables as a Teaching Tool

How then, do we teach children these complex concepts?  How will they learn to discern the nuances, balance all aspects and make the right decision?   

Guiding children through life experience is one method.  Another is to teach life lessons via short stories or fables.  One of the oldest known teachings of life lessons are Aesop’s fables.  They were written between 620 and 560 B.C and are attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave.  ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’, and ‘The Goose that Laid Golden Eggs’ are three well known Aesop’s Fables.  There are as many as 200 individual stories attributed to Aesop.

Aesop’s Fables are a favorite among parents and have been for many generations because they have captured the essence of these complex moral dilemmas.  The good adaptations of Aesop’s Fables allow the reader to discern the many nuances of the dilemma and learn the associated life lesson.   In this way, the reader will understand why it does indeed ‘depend’.  But, more importantly, the reader will also recognize that the resolution of these moral dilemmas is a fundamental prerequisite to a harmonious and fulfilling life.

As parents, aunts and uncles, we want the children in our lives to have the skills necessary to properly evaluate these situations and resolve them in the best possible way.   Although parents are the primary teachers of life lessons, they are not alone.  We all have that responsibility.  In fact, we are both teacher and student.  The power and value of life lessons lies in this fact.  It means we are constantly learning and our life experiences are the means by which we are able to uncover the nuances of ‘it depends’.

Enduring Truths Based on Moral Principles

One of the extraordinary things about life lessons is that they are enduring truths based on moral principles that have not changed much with time.  This is why Aesop’s fables have endured these many generations and why they are known to so many different cultures.  There are literally 1000s of English language books devoted to Aesop’s Fables. 

With so many choices, how do you choose the best ones for teaching the children in your life?  The books can be divided into three types:

   1)  Straight translations of each fable, most often from Greek or Latin sources
   2) Modern day adaptations rendered into a children’s book
   3) Historical and philosophical texts

Parents wanting to pass these enduring life lessons to their young children will obviously skip the historical texts.  The straight translations are not at all interesting to children under the age of 10 because they are often stark and obscure.  That leaves a 1000 or so, modern day adaptations. 

Most Fable Adaptations for Children are Inadequate
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the modern day adaptations are woefully inadequate.  They often do not state the moral or life lesson as an integral part of the story.  Some don’t even state it at all.  Instead, the author expects the child to make that leap of understanding.  This requires both abstract thinking and a wealth of life experience.  Two things, young children do not yet have.

Other books simply declare the life lesson either at the beginning or end of the story.  The benefit of this approach is that it provides the adult with a starting point for discussion.  The unfortunate limitation is that the timing and relevancy of the lesson is lost to the child. 

The ideal adaptation is one which states the life lesson at that point in the narrative when it is most relevant.  Telling Aesop’s fables in this way has two very powerful features.  First and foremost is that it teaches the life lesson.  The second is that it fosters abstract thinking because it takes the concrete action of the story and generalizes them into the concept of a moral dilemma.

As a parent, I was frustrated because I could not find a book that presented Aesop’s fables in the way I have just described.  On April 28th, 2013, my twins turn 20.  I have finally completed my second book in the Aesop’s Childhood Adventures series; a gift for my twins.  My hope is that the children in your life will benefit from these timeless fables too.

(c) 2013 Vangelo Media

About

Vincent A. Mastro

Vincent A. Mastro is a board member for TALC, The Adolescent Leadership Council, a non-profit focused on the challenges confronting teens with chronic illnesses of all kinds.  The life lessons of Aesop’s fables were passed to Vincent Mastro from his parents and grandparents in different stories associated with his Italian heritage.  During his teen years he learned of Aesop’s fables and realized they were the source of these important messages.  As a parent, he was left unsatisfied with the many classic versions of the fables because they were stark and not at all interesting to his children.  His motivation for writing this version of the fables is for the next generation of children so that they may benefit from these extraordinary, timeless messages of insight.

Q & A
Why did you choose to only include 3 stories in each book?

To protect parents ;-)   I remember when my wife and I would read bedtime stories to our twins.  If they liked the stories, they would not want us to stop.  With 3 stories in one book, it will be a lot easier to say goodnight.

Why is the beginning and the end of each story the same?

This gives the child a comforting frame of familiarity in which the story is told.  This means they do not need to focus on the details of the beginning and end of each story, they only need to focus on the main content of each fable.

Why did you structure the story so that you could state the life lesson twice?

The stories are structured so that the first statement of the life lesson is by Aesop as something he has learned that day.  The second time is when his grandmother validates the message.  I did this for two reasons.

1Reinforcement.  Repeating the message at different times helps the children absorb it.

2.  Some stories have more than one life lesson. 

Why is the message of perseverance in every story?

I believe that perseverance is the single most important trait for success.  Thomas Edison said something like invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  When asked what he learned from inventing the light bulb he said that he now knows over 1000 ways to not build one.  Simply put, he kept at it until he found the right materials and methods. On a personal basis, my family and I have been through many difficult medical situations and if it was not for the dedication and perseverance of my wife, my kids would not be who they are today - nor as healthy.

Why does Aesop’s grandmother have such a prominent role?

There are three reasons.

1.  Typically, mothers are overly protective and would never let the little one do something like go out and explore the world without a watchful eye. By the same token, a grandparent is more inclined to do so.  My hope is for balance.

2.  I feel very strongly about the value of generational wisdom. The grandmother obviously is the means by which I illustrate that - but my hope is that the parents who have not yet come to value their parents will learn from example.

3.  I was blessed with a wonderful grandmother.

(c) 2013 Vangelo Media