How to Explore Wisdom Texts With Kids
Imagine sitting around a campfire a thousand years ago, singing sacred hymns or listening to a storyteller weave a tale about a hero from long ago.
Such activities have been so valuable that cultures around the world painstakingly preserved their version of wisdom in poetry and prose. Initially, it happened through song or voice, with singers and storytellers memorizing passages or improvising their own spin on old tales. Only later — often hundreds of years later — were these words written down, laboriously copied by hand for centuries.
While many ancient stories and manuscripts have been lost to time, some still survive today including the Tao Te Ching from Taoism, the Dhammapada from Buddhism, the Tanakh (also known as the Hebrew Bible) from Judaism, the Gospels from Christianity, the Bhagavad Gita from Hinduism, and many more.
These texts still have value today.
Why Explore Wisdom Texts With Kids?
1. Wisdom texts connect kids to the past. As kids learn about ancient texts, they see that they’re part of something beyond themselves — a grand, unfolding narrative that extends backwards and forwards in time. This insight can ground kids during difficult situations in their life, as they reflect on ancient sayings or ancient heroes who overcame difficult challenges (or who failed to do so). By connecting to the past, kids also start to understand how humanity has changed over time — and how we’re just the same. This insight gives them an appreciation for the broader human experience.
2. Wisdom texts connect kids to the present. Billions of people around the world value wisdom texts today. By knowing the basic stories and sayings from a variety of cultures, kids gain a better appreciation for those cultures — and a better understanding of cultural references in art, poetry, and film.
3. Wisdom texts help kids understand their own psyche. Ancient storytellers knew that the best way to understand our internal world is through symbolism. Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University, builds on this concept, saying, “Whether in nature-based myths like those from Native American or original Hawaiian cultures, biblical stories, or superhero characters, symbolism develops through a cognitive process in which we invest an image or an idea with meaning.”
Religious historian Karen Armstrong echoes this same ideas, writing, “The stories of gods or heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fight with monsters, brought to light the mysterious workings of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their own interior crises.” Having a host of stories on hand gives kids a library to pull from when needed later on in life.
Those are just a few reasons why these texts matter.
But It’s Not All Wise…
Of course, if you’ve spent time with these texts, you also know that they contain plenty of passages that are plain vapid or even harmful. Xenophobia, misogyny, violence — all were rampant in the ancient world, and they all surface in many of these texts.
So, how do you share these texts with kids?
A Perennial Approach
As we mention in our approach to spiritual development with kids, at Uplift we recognize that while ancient wisdom and modern science come from particular cultural contexts (and therefore must be held with humility), they also have value, regardless of where in the world they emerged from.
We didn’t invent this approach to wisdom. For hundreds of years (at least since the Italian Renaissance and almost certainly before) people have recognized value in a variety of traditions.
One name for this approach is perennial wisdom, which is the idea that similar timeless truths appear year after year (one might say perennially) in many traditions around the world. As the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says, “The perennial tradition points to recurring themes and truths within all of the world’s religions.”
What’s so powerful about the concept of perennial wisdom is that it transcends divisions of belief or disbelief — or religious adherence or lack thereof. It works if you belong to a religious tradition and hold beliefs within that particular tradition (so long as you also believe that beliefs contained in other traditions hold value too). It also works if you don’t belong to a religious tradition at all. In this way, it’s a viable approach for families that take an expansive approach to spirituality, including mixed-faith families and non-religious families.
Of course, like every viewpoint, the perennial philosophy has shortcomings. Some of those who embrace it mistakenly conflate every wisdom tradition as being the same, which isn’t true at all. Each tradition is unique and contains claims that are at times directly at odds with other traditions. In addition, the perennial philosophy is often overly academic, appealing only to people who have advanced degrees in religion. As such, it can sometimes be lifeless and inaccessible to kids. (This is one of the goals of Uplift: To make wisdom engaging for people of all ages!)
Still, because the perennial approach acknowledges wisdom wherever it’s found, it holds power in a connected world.
With that, here are some tips for reading world wisdom with kids.
Tips for Exploring Wisdom Texts With Kids
Choose a regular time to explore a text — whether right before bed, during a meal, or during a weekly get together — and try these suggestions. If it’s helpful, use our wisdom library.
1. Adapt the stories for different ages. For littles, keep your words as simple as possible and involve something tactile or visual in the process. You might have them draw the story as you tell it in simple terms. Or you might pull up an image from the story so they’re looking at something as you talk. For tweens, invite them to read part or all of the story out loud, guiding them through any complicated passages. For teens, ask them to read a passage ahead of time and prepare some questions to discuss as a family. Be open to discussion that breaks from traditional approaches. (This is often where the magic happens!)
2. Combine head knowing with heart knowing. Academic scholars have well-informed things to say about all of these texts, so if your kids have a question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t be afraid to look it up with them. At the same time, remind your kids that these stories have staying power because they carry a “more than literal meaning,” as biblical scholar Marcus Borg says. They’re rarely if ever intended as historical texts. Rather, they’re intended to speak to the deepest parts of the human psyche and use symbolism to get there. “Symbolism connects mind and heart,” writes Lisa Miller.
3. Try reading the texts without adding commentary. You don’t have to be an expert on a text to read it. You don’t even have to have a discussion about it. Kids will retain what they will retain, and sometimes just hearing a story is enough. The more stories you share from a variety of traditions, the more your kids will sense the deeper psychological meanings behind it all (if not immediately, then when they’re older).
4. If you do add commentary, make it an exploration. Kids are just like grownups in the sense that they shut down when they feel like they’re being lectured to. As a result, use the time to explore a text rather than explain it. Talk about the questions you have about the text, or ask them what they think and roll with it. If your kids aren’t in the mood to explore a particular text in depth, move along. Soon enough, you’ll come to something that sparks something in them. Start there.
5. Don’t dwell on the violent aspects of these texts, but don’t totally ignore these aspects either. Since war was a common aspect of ancient life, wisdom texts reference it frequently. At their worst, these stories get usurped by men who use the text to justify modern violence. At their best, these stories are a way to explore the conflict within each of us — an exploration that leads to self-reflection (and, it hopefully follows, less violence). In this way, stories of war are a metaphor that lead to illumination. (This is one of the core takeaways of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance.)
6. Point out similarities in stories from different traditions. The more stories and sayings you explore from various cultures, the more you’ll uncover similarities. Point out these similarities to help your kids understand that human beings have wrestled with similar issues from the rise of civilization to today. This practice will help cement in stories you’ve previously explored, making them more memorable, and help your kids understand that they aren’t alone in their struggles.
7. Just enjoy. You don’t have to pull a moral from any of these stories. At some level, many of these stories survived because they were entertaining. They might be nothing more than that. And that’s okay too.
Go-to Discussion Questions
If you’re ever grasping for straws when exploring a wisdom text, use these questions (loosely based on our approach) to spark discussion:
About the text:
- “What does this story tell us about following your inner compass?”
- “Do you notice any opposites in this story? Any paradoxes?” (The most fruitful discussions often center on exploring tension created by two opposites.)
- “What are the strengths of the characters? Any strengths you admire?”
- “What are the flaws of the characters? How do their flaws affect them?”
- “What do the characters learn? How do they grow?”
- “Can you think of any way this text could be an allegory?”
- “Can you relate to any part of this story?”
- “Have you ever had to face a similar challenge?”
- “Do you agree with the story’s stated moral? Do you disagree?”
- “What’s the most charitable way you can interpret this story?”
- “What’s the moral you’d take from this story, if any?”
- “Why do you think this story is so important to the culture it came from?”
Or, to see an example of a guide to a wisdom text, see our page on the Tao Te Ching.