Einstein said a lot of things, and much of what he has said has been handsomely crafted into tight shareable memes that offer an inspiring boost to our mornings.
But there is one quote that takes some considering in order to fully appreciate its wisdom.
If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
Now—if we are honest with ourselves—our first hit on this quote is to nod our heads and agree. There is something true about what he says. But then, our rational mind turns on and our brow furrows. “Fairy tales? What do fairy tales have to do with intelligence?”
Einstein did not recommend early reading or times table practice or memorizing Coleridge or the psalms for growing young intelligence. He was very specific. He said “read them fairy tales”.
So … why?
As a former elementary school teacher, I feel personally aligned with this idea. I told a lot of fairy tales in my day, and I noticed something impressive. My first graders listened to them like they were drinking water on a hot day. They soaked these stories in—they savored them—and when I was finished telling them, they leaned back and sighed like they just ate a spectacular Thanksgiving dinner. So what is that all about?
Over the past few years I have dug into pop neuroscience and child development research, and I keep finding the same thing: storytelling builds nimble brains. Now, those are not the words the scientists used, but I think that is what they meant. When a person hears a story, he or she constructs a “neural pathway”: a series of mental links that offer the brain a means of achieving something. A neural pathway is needed to accomplish anything—from lifting your pinky finger to solving a Sudoku puzzle. And having a wide reaching tree of neural pathways makes for a nimble, versatile, and efficient brain. It makes you smart.
So lets keep with this tree image a moment longer. Say it’s an apple tree. What kind of apple tree gives the most fruit? The established, well pruned tree, not the one with the most little branches. So what kind of brain gives the most fruit? The same thing. It is not the amount of information that makes a brain smarter—but the one with an established, well-pruned collection of pathways. And fairy tales build those pathways.
Fairy tales are moral stories that show us how to solve problems and find success. Really. You might get hung up on the gender inequality, the racism, the simplistic good-versus-evil dynamics and myriad of other questionable politically incorrect encounters we have with Grimms or Appalachian Jack Tales or Perrault or Aesop. But if you can look past your own context and see them through the eyes of a dream, then it starts to make sense. The hero’s journey is revealed. Shadow work. Jungian psychology. The work of Webster, Tolle, Williamson, Chopra and other super popular progressive thinkers have the same message as the very old fairy tales: be present, practice kindness, always do the right thing, look toward the good. Children recognize this. They see themselves in every character—in the prince as well as the queen as well as the pauper as well as the wolf. They grab onto these fairy tales like nutritious food. They gobble them up and ask you to tell it again. They do this because they are pruning. They are establishing a solid branch and want make it stronger and stronger so they can use it for the future.
Then, once this story of the princess or the retired soldier or the fox or the simpleton is established in their brain, they can refer to it when they meet with difficulty. They have a road map—they “know” what to do. So why does this mean they are smarter? Because what are smarts for if not for solving problems? And that includes difficulties, challenges, surprises, and tragedies.
So lets all follow the smart advice of a very smart guy—and tell our children fairy tales. Get a copy of Grimms, of Charles Perrault, or the fairy and folktales of Japan, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Russia and pretty much every country of the world. If you want contemporary Fairy Tales visit www.sparklestories.com. Read them, listen to them, act them out—whatever. But feed them to your children. And then watch those apples grow.