Stories are probably the oldest and most enduring form of entertainment we have, and for good reason. From the moment we’re able to understand, young or old we love a good plot line. Audio or book or played out on the big screen, we all buy into the joy of a story unfolding. And one of the best-loved formats is a timeless parable. These motivational stories have been around for so long in some cases that their author is unknown. Yet they live on.
Some of these anecdotes I recall from my school days, others I’ve heard more recently. But they all share a common theme:
They each carry a moral lesson and serve as powerful metaphors for life. And there’s something special about these messages being relayed in story form which makes them perfect for recounting their wisdom to children.
I was moved to put this list of fables together at a time when I’m needing to be reminded of the good in the world. I hope you too will something here which offers comfort and inspiration.
Motivational Stories and Fables For Children and Adults
1. Socrates’ ‘triple-filter’ test – kindness
In ancient Greece the famous philosopher, Socrates, was visited by an acquaintance of his. Eager to share some gossip the acquaintance asked Socrates, ‘Would you like to know what I just heard about your friend?’
Socrates replied that before the man spoke, he must first pass the ‘Triple-Filter’ test. ‘The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?’
‘Well, no,’ the man said, ‘actually I just heard about it and…’
‘Alright,’ said Socrates. ‘So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?’
‘Uh, no, on the contrary…’
‘So,’ Socrates continued, ‘you want to tell me something bad about my friend, but you’re not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test though, because there’s one more filter. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?’
‘No, not really.’
‘Well,’ concluded Socrates, ‘if what you want to tell me is neither true, nor good, nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?’
Moral of the story: be kind, always, and don’t spread gossip.
2. Potatoes, eggs, and coffee beans – mindset
Once upon a time, a daughter complained to her father that her life was miserable and that she didn’t know how she was going to make it better. She was tired of fighting and struggling all the time. It seemed like life was one problem after the next.
Her father, a chef, took her to the kitchen. He filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Once the three pots began to boil, he placed potatoes in one pot, eggs in the second pot, and ground coffee beans in the third pot. He then let them to sit and boil, without saying a word to his daughter. The daughter moaned and impatiently waited, wondering what he was doing.
After twenty minutes he turned off the burners. He took the potatoes out of the pot and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out and placed it in a cup.
Turning to his daughter, he asked. ‘What do you see?’
‘Potatoes, eggs, and coffee,’ she replied.
‘Look closer,’ he said, ‘and touch the potatoes.’ She did and noted that they were soft. He asked her to take an egg and break it; pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.
Finally, he asked her to sip the coffee. Its rich aroma brought a smile to her face.
‘Father, what does this mean?’ she asked. He explained that the potatoes, the eggs, and coffee beans had each faced the same adversity– the boiling water. However, each one reacted differently:
The potato went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but the boiling water made it soft and weak.
The egg was fragile, with the thin outer shell protecting its liquid interior. But once placed in boiling water, the inside of the egg became hard.
However, the ground coffee beans were unique. After they were exposed to the boiling water, they changed the water and created something new and wonderful.
‘Which are you,’ he asked his daughter. ‘When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a potato, an egg, or a coffee bean? ‘
Moral of the story: change your mindset to change your life.
3. Stop wasting your time complaining – positivity
A wise man receive a stream of visitors complaining about the same problems over and over again. One day, he decided to tell them a joke and they all roared with laughter.
After a few minutes, he told them the same joke and only a few of them smiled.
He told the same joke a third time, but no one laughed or smiled anymore.
The wise man smiled and said: ‘You can’t laugh at the same joke over and over, so why lament the same problem?’
Moral of the story: focus on the good instead of the bad.
4. Box full of kisses – love
A man scolded his three year old daughter for wasting a roll of gold wrapping paper. Money was tight and he became cross when the child tried to decorate a box to put under the Christmas tree.
Nevertheless, the little girl brought the gift to her father the next morning and said, ‘Daddy, this is for you.’
The man was embarrassed by his earlier overreaction, but his irritation flared again when he found the box was empty. He yelled at the girl, stating, ‘When you give someone a present, there is supposed to be something inside!’
The little girl looked up at him with tears in her eyes and cried, ‘Oh, Daddy, it’s not empty; I blew kisses into the box. They’re all for you, Daddy.’
The father was crushed. He put his arms around his little girl and he begged for her forgiveness.
A short time later, an accident took the life of the girl. It is told that her father kept that gold box by his bed for many years and whenever he was discouraged, he would take out an imaginary kiss and remember the love of the child who had put it there.
Moral of the story: there is no possession in life greater than unconditional love.
5. The two mice – determination
Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.
Moral of the story: don’t quit.
6. Think before you speak – thoughtfulness
There once was a little boy who had a very bad temper. His father decided to teach him a lesson. He handed him a bag of nails and said that every time the boy lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail into the fence.
On the first day, the boy hammered 37 nails into that fence.
The boy gradually began to control his temper over the next few weeks, and the number of nails he was hammering into the fence slowly decreased. He discovered it was easier to control his temper than to hammer those nails into the fence.
Eventually the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all and he proudly told his father the news. The father suggested that the boy should now pull out a nail every day he kept his temper under control.
The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.
‘You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out again. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.’
Moral of the story: be careful with your words.
7. Is the jar full? – priorities
A university professor that wanted to make a point about the importance of prioritising how we spend our time.
The professor stood in front of her class with a display of items, she took a large empty jar and filled it with small rocks. She asked the class if the jar was full and they agreed yes, the jar was full.
The professor took a bowl of pebbles, added them to the jar, and gave it a little shake to move the pebbles into the open areas around the rocks. The professor asked the class again if the jar was full and again they agreed that yes, it was full.
Finally, the professor took a box of sand and added it to the jar, filling the spaces between the rocks and the pebbles. She asked again, is the jar full now, and they laughed and agreed yes, it’s full.
This jar represents your life.
The big rocks signify the really important things in your life, such as health, family, and friends. The pebbles are the other things that matter in your life, such as work or school. And the sand signifies the remaining small stuff, such as material possessions.
Now, if you were to reverse the order of filling the jar and add the sand first there would not be enough room for the rocks and the pebbles. The same principle applies to your life. If you spend too much time on the small stuff you won’t have enough space or time to focus on the things that are truly important: those little rocks.
Moral of the story: prioritise the rocks first. Practice self-care, spend quality time with the people you love. The rest is just pebbles and sand, and they will always find some space.
8. The lame dog – compassion
A pet shop owner had some puppies for sale. He hung a sign in his window advertising the puppies and shortly thereafter a small boy entered the shop.
‘Mister,’ said the boy, ‘I’d like to buy one of your puppies.’
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘these puppies come from fine parents and cost a lot of money.’
The boy reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of coins and held it up. ‘I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?’
‘Sure,’ said the man. And with that he let out a whistle. ‘Here, girl!’ he called. A dog ran over followed by by her four puppies.
The little boy pressed his face against the glass and his eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way across, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse. Slowly another little ball of fur appeared, this one noticeably smaller. In a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up.
‘I want that one,’ the little boy said, pointing to the runt.
The man knelt down at the boy’s side and said, ‘Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.’
With that the little boy stepped back, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. He revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg, and attached to a specially made shoe.
Looking back up at the man, he said, ‘You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.’
With tears in his eyes, the man reached down and picked up the little pup. Holding it carefully he handed it to the little boy. ‘How much?’ asked the little boy.
‘No charge,’ answered the man.
Moral of the story: everyone deserves love and understanding.
9. Shake off your problems – perspective
A man’s favourite donkey falls into a deep precipice; he can’t pull it out no matter how hard he tries. He eventually decides to bury it alive.
Soil is poured onto the donkey from above. The donkey feels the load, shakes it off, and steps on it; more soil is poured. The donkey shakes it off and steps up.
The more the soil was poured, the higher it rose. By noon, the donkey was grazing in green pastures.
Moral of the story: after much shaking off (of problems) and stepping up (learning from them), one will graze in green pastures.
10. The hare and the tortoise – humility
A hare was making fun of a tortoise for being so slow. The tortoise, tiring of the hare’s taunts eventually challenged the hare to a race.
‘I’ll race you, hare,’ he said; ‘and I bet I’ll win.’ The hare readily agreed to the challenge.
When the race started, the hare bounded off. He was so far ahead of the tortoise that he decided to stop and take a rest. However, the hare fell fast asleep, while the tortoise continued to plod along at his slow pace.
In time, he reached the finish-line and won the race.
When the hare woke up, he was furious at himself. He ran off towards the finish line as fast as he could, but it was too late: the tortoise had already won.
Moral of the story: don’t be too quick to write somebody off, they might just surprise you. A little modesty can carry you far too!
11. The dish of ice cream – graciousness
Back when an ice cream sundaes cost far less, a young boy entered a cafe and sat at the counter. The waitress put a glass of water in front of him and asked what he’d like.
‘How much is an ice cream sundae?’ he asked.
’50 cents,’ replied the waitress.
The boy pulled a handful of change out of his pocket and studied his small collection of coins.
‘How much is a dish of plain ice cream?’ he enquired.
Some other customers were now waiting to be served and the waitress grew a bit impatient.
’35 cents,’ she said in an abrupt and frustrated tone.
The boy again counted his coins, then said, ‘I’ll have the plain ice cream please.’ The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the counter and walked away.
The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed.
When the waitress came back, she started wiping down the counter and then began to cry at what she saw.
There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, was 15 cents – her tip.
Moral of the story: no matter what the circumstances, always treat others as you would wish to be treated.
12. The blind girl – gratitude
A blind girl hated herself for being unable to see. She had grown resentful and bitter of the world, and the only person she didn’t hate was her loving boyfriend. He was always there for her and she said that if only she could see, she would marry him.
One day, someone donated a pair of eyes to her. Finally she would have the opportunity to see everything, including her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend then said, ‘Now that you can see, will you marry me?’
The girl, no longer blind, was shocked when she saw that her boyfriend was blind too, and she refused. Her boyfriend was crushed and walked away defeated.
Later, he wrote a note to her that said simply… ‘Just take care of my eyes’.
Moral of the story: practice gratitude and appreciate the good in your life.
13. Footprints in the sand – judgement
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
‘Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.’
He whispered, ‘My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.’
Moral of the story: reserve judgement and always give the benefit of the doubt.
Inspirational Stories to Promote Strong Principles
While some of these stories may have heartbreaking or even shocking punchlines, their capacity to move us is undeniable. That’s why they survive telling after telling and remain so well-loved…
They’re short and to the point, and the lessons they communicate are poignant and unmistakable.
Which is what makes these classic short stories a wonderful way to engage children around the often complex subject of morals and ethics.