Illustration by Quentin Blake (Penguin Books)

Imagine that a child stands at her bedroom door, one ear pressed to the cool wood, listening to the screaming, crashing, and shouting coming from inside her house. One floor below, her parents fight, leaving bruises on one another, and emotional scars on their listening daughter.

She grows up. She thinks of her parents often, always desperate to move in the opposite direction they took, striving to be kind, to be good and warm and loving. But a thought eats her. They are her parents. Their genes are hers. They were her environment as she emotionally developed. All of what she runs from is already within her, waiting for the proper moment to burst forth, nature and nurture colluding to form her into a monster. She will inevitably become her parents.

Or will she?

How much choice do we really have over the people we become? Are we destined by our genes, by our upbringing, by the examples we’ve seen? The most profound answers to our questions are often found in unexpected places, and for this, we look to children’s literature—at Roald Dahl’s, “The Big Friendly Giant,” and at what the titular giant has to teach us from the pages.

All good literature is carefully packaged wisdom. It represents a brief journey in someone else’s shoes that gives us a different perspect—one that can free us of false preconceptions and fears. Children’s literature is no different. In Dahl’s “The Big Friendly Giant,” the BFG, as this friendly giant is referred to, is the oddest sort of character. When Sophie, the story’s little girl protagonist, peeks out of her open window on one silent, moonlit night, she spies a figure, cloaked in black, unnaturally thin, and as tall as a house, striding down the sidewalk. Before she can pull the curtains shut, however, it sees her. Striding over to her house, the figure reveals itself to be a giant, and captures her in one huge hand, taking her back to his lair in the land of the giants.

Sophie dreads being eaten, but the BFG soon reassures her that, unlike the other nine giants, he does not eat “human beans.” The other giants travel to different countries to taste all of the different flavors of humans each night, but not he! The BFG subsists on a foul-tasting vegetable called a “snozzcumber,” instead. He goes on to protect Sophie from intrusions from the other giants and the two go on an incredible adventure together, even going on to meet the Queen of England.

So what does a big-eared giant have to say about breaking generational chains of poor behavior? Plenty.

The mind loves the familiar. It’s a field of tall grass that you pass through each day on your way home, eventually wearing a path as your feet trample the blades—paths are formed, and the mind chooses those well-worn and easily-trod lanes, especially in times of stress. If you grew up in an abusive environment, you may find that abuse is your first instinct when you feel threatened or angry. It may seem like an inescapable reality that you will become the very thing that hurt you in the first place.

The BFG is a happy giant, but he knows his share of difficulties, as we listen in on his conversations with Sophie as the story unfolds. His chosen life has been difficult. He has lost his community—his very race spurns him. He is forced to eat food that is unappealing, disgusting, even. But does he focus on this? No—he doesn’t. He creates beauty.

Those well-worn paths of the mind are easiest to return to when they are continually focused upon. Psychological research has long indicated that we should focus on what we want to become, not what we don’t want to become. Focusing on what we don’t want consumes us with that unwanted thing, eventually manifesting it as our reality. When we focus on the good, on the beautiful and lovely, that’s what we get. That’s what we become.

The BGF spends his days blowing “lovely golden dreams” into the rooms of sleeping children. He actively takes a different path through that field of grass—not the one of his ancestors, or of his peers, or of his “betters,” such as the enormous, evil Fleshlumpeater, leader of the giants. He doesn’t look to these figures for his identity, but lives by what he knows to be right and good—he treats others as he would like to be treated, and what he sows, he also reaps, in the end. The BFG eventually finds community amongst the very humans his peers consumed—he is honored and loved, in fact, and a castle is constructed for him. The rest of the giants are imprisoned in a pit.

Dahl’s book is all about the ability of the human soul to escape its moorings in order to be what it will be. The BFG is a member of a man-eating race that stalks the night in search of human prey, yet has chosen to have a heart of gold. He breaks the chains of a negative upbringing, and even those of his natural proclivities. When Sophie gets to know him, she grows to love him as a friend, and because child readers identify with Sophie, they see that these kind and warm-hearted traits are what they should look for in a friend. But beyond illustrating positive relationships for young people, there is much wisdom left, pooling like rain, in the footprints of this gentle giant—wisdom that is more applicable to those of us who have already grown up than for children, in fact.

Our ancestry and environment shape us only as much as we allow them to. Create and focus on positive relationships in your life—forge new paths through that field of tall grass. Think about what you are reinforcing in your life. Are you agonizing over whether you might one day eat a human bean, or are you too busy giving people beautiful dreams? Acknowledge your heritage, as the BFG does, and subvert it. Break the cycle. Surround yourself with good, supportive friends who share your good values, and who you can lean on and learn from.

Remember—it was only when the BFG removed himself from his negative community that he truly bloomed. He didn’t even know how to grow any food other than the disgusting snozzcumbers, refusing to steal crops for himself from the humans. It didn’t matter that he was as tall as a house; the humans accepted him because of his kindness, not his past or genetic makeup. They honored him, fed him, and loved him because he chose to be good. They made it even easier for him to stay that way.

Dahl wrote wisdom into the form of a scrawny, floppy-eared giant. The next time you read the story to your children, pay attention, yourself. It just might set you free.

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