What Should Your Child Read?
FANTASY! Science Fiction! Romance! Hobbies! Adventures! Fairy Tales! All are competing for your child’s attention. “Buy me that book!” “I want to read that story!” Do you hear such words from your youngsters? Will you encourage them to read? If so, read what?
It is not that every little boy and girl is eager to plunge into a book. Surveys indicate that television has stifled reading for many children. Speaking of TV, one researcher noted: “Children’s viewing experiences influence their reading in critical ways, affecting how much they read, what they read, [and] how they feel about reading.” Thus many teachers and psychologists recommend less television, more reading.
And most parents want their children to love to read. They know that it is an ability to cherish. One teaching manual summed it up nicely, saying: “Reading has a direct influence on our lives. The kind of work we do, the skills we develop, our enjoyment of life, our spiritual growth are all connected with our reading ability. Without this ability to read one is denied much of the richness of learning and experience.”
On the other hand, does this mean that you should be so grateful to see your child reading that you supply any kind of material the youngster wants? Or should you control what your children read?
What Is Your Objective?
A great variety of children’s literature is being printed today. Presently there are more than 150 publishers of children’s books and more than 250 children’s magazines in the United States and Canada alone. Will not the type of material that a child feeds his mind on affect his expectations, his relations with others and his view of himself? Ask yourself: What view of people should I hold before my child as the right one? What moral standards should I encourage?
It is popular today to adopt a philosophy of letting the child read and observe what he wants, permitting the child to ‘establish his own moral values.’ However, in reality, this view allows other people to form your child’s outlook on life.
But do not all parents hope for healthy, balanced and stable children? Do they not desire to see their offspring successful and so encourage them to develop skills? How is this achieved? A Bible proverb replies: “Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it.” (Prov. 22:6) Obviously, then, parents should direct what their young ones are allowed to read and dwell on. This is even more evident when one considers the power of a story on the young mind.
Reading Is Believing
One mother watched her young son as he read a story about how “the wise spider” saves the “dumb little pig” from slaughter. He was so touched at the end that he kissed the illustration of the spider! Is there any doubt as to how much he was moved by the story or how “real” it was to him?
A children’s writer acknowledged this power by saying: “The truth of the matter is that children read with their whole hearts. They may ask at the beginning, ‘Is it true?’ Yet even if you say, ‘No, it is just a story,’ it is never just a story to them. It is a life to live, an entire and very real life to live.” Further emphasizing how much stories affect children, author Alice Dalgliesh observes: “Adults sometimes fail to recognize the very important point that books for little children often go over into action—the child draws, or dramatizes what is read to him, or incorporates it into his speech.”
What an awesome force! By means of stories the child can suddenly be in an African jungle, or, outer space, or can travel with the prince as he looks for the princess.
Especially powerful are “parables” or stories with a point to make. One mother of several boys tells of how her young sons, who often tended to be stingy with one another, were touched by a story about a tree and a little boy. The tree repeatedly gave parts of herself to the boy until all that remained was her stump. The mother’s observation as to how the boys responded was: “Now, it’s clear that all my sons identify not with the boy but with the tree, who, they perceive, has found more contentment in her giving than the boy has ever managed to find in his taking.”
Yes, lessons in how to live life can be learned. Imagination and creativity can be stirred. The young one can grasp more about the ‘larger world’ beyond his neighborhood. A sense of past times—history—can be developed. But are all the books in the children’s section of the library or book store equally advantageous? Perhaps not. Recent changes in children’s literature are not to be ignored. A brief look at the development of literature aimed at youngsters will reveal the new trend.
Development of Children’s Literature
Ever since a Frenchman published Mother Goose Rhymes toward the end of the eighteenth century, publishers have been seeking to please juvenile readers. In the nineteenth century the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, began recording German folk tales. About the same time, in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen set about writing stories that have remained popular for generations. Meanwhile, in England, Lewis Carroll produced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
From these beginnings a wide variety of material has evolved. Many stories are adapted from ancient “folklore”—often a mixture of exaggerated history and myth. Others deal with present-day situations. Today, children’s literature is usually divided into four categories:
(1) Nonfiction. These include children’s encyclopedias and “how to” books. They can assist a child in overcoming fears about trying new things. There are nonfiction books for children on how to plant a garden, how the gasoline engine works, how to arrange flowers and even how to manage money!
Books that teach the alphabet and “new words” can really help young ones to reach out for a greater vocabulary and increased reading comprehension.
(2) Fairy tales. These are folk stories about fairies, dwarfs, magicians and similar characters. In these tales the solution often comes about by supernatural or magical means. Back in 1697, Charles Perrault published five fairy tales, including the present-day favorites “Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella.” Actually, since many fairy tales first existed as oral stories, their origins are often obscure.
(3) Fantasy. These are the works of known authors. But like fairy tales they describe beings and events that do not exist in real life. The Wind in the Willows and The Adventures of Pinnochio are well-known examples of this style of writing. Modern fantasies often take place in outer space on other planets.
(4) Fiction. This category encompasses those books that describe the world as we know it, although the characters and situations described are invented by the author. Famous examples are Heidi and The Swiss Family Robinson.
It is in this latter category that there have been the most drastic changes in recent years. Here is how one children’s writer, Jane Yolen, described the new trend: “There are no longer any taboos in children’s books, except that of bad taste. . . . What was once not even whispered in the parlor, and only snickered at in the barroom, is now legitimate fare for young readers. The old-fashioned view that certain things should be taboo for children simply because they are young is no longer in style.”—The Writer, April 1975, p. 12.
She lists the reasons for this change as (1) more highly educated children, (2) the abundance of magazines in the house that describe today’s world and (3) especially television with its “instant replays” of “student uprisings, the assassination of political figures, the birth control battles, the change in sexual mores.”
While many might disagree with her reasoning as to why the current “style” exists, the reality is that many topics are now included in children’s literature that were not there 10 or 15 years ago. A look at recent titles reveals discussions of drunkenness, divorce, premarital sex, pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality and senility.
Further, the trend today of some children’s writers is to view it as prejudiced and narrow to write for a “moral purpose”—that is, to lead young people away from evil and toward good. This, they argue, is “propaganda.” In their view, it should not be “the good guys” versus “the bad guys”—heroes versus villains. They claim that the writer should not preach to the youngsters. Rather, he should simply tell a convincing story.
Another recent change has been in the attitude of some children’s authors toward the Bible. For instance, one said: “Many of the Old Testament stories rest on the primitive conception of Jehovah as a vengeful God who punishes in a terrible way (as in the story of the Flood) or a God who demands elaborate evidence of submission to his will (as in the story of Abraham and Isaac.).”
Actually, this is not what the Bible itself teaches. To the contrary, it continually portrays Jehovah as a loving Father urging his erring children to return to doing what is good. (Mal. 3:6-10) Yet the writer who takes such an antagonistic position toward the God of the Bible certainly would not encourage his little reader to look to that One. The Christian parent who believes that a close relationship with God is the greatest gift one can give his or her child will want to be alert to this extreme view.
Thus, parents, after considering the turmoil in the world of children’s literature, the question comes back to you: What about the many different kinds of books? What will you let Johnny or Jill read?
What Can Parents Do?
Obviously, it is not wise to classify all the literature in any of the above four categories as being “all bad” or “all good.” Both parents must have clearly in mind the emotional needs of the child, according to age, and how any literature might affect that particular child.
For example, let’s consider the fairy-tale category. Some would argue that the child is enriched—imagination is stirred, good usually triumphs over evil. Others would reason that such tales embed superstition and promote an unhealthy outlook toward the supernatural. Further, they may cause the child to seek to live in a dream world, expecting magical solutions to life’s problems instead of appreciating that effort must be put forth to attain desired goals.
Parents must decide. But whatever the inclination of your reasoning, is it not important to consider each of your children as an individual? One child may already tend toward a great deal of “daydreaming” and so it would be wise to turn his young mind in other directions.
“But, how do I know what effect his story books have on him?” you may ask. It is not always easy. There are many other influences in a youngster’s life besides reading. But there is one approach by which you can learn a great deal about what is really touching the heart of your little one.
Read the story together. Children love such attention. It provides an emotional outlet for children who love to read, while encouraging those not so fond of reading. In fact, some teachers hold that if parents read to their small babes who cannot yet read, this forms within the child an early favorable impression or “tendency” toward reading.
And you may be surprised at some of the conclusions your youngster may draw or what aspects of the story fascinate him or her. Ask your child: “What did you think of that person?” “What did you like best about that story?” Considering the responses, you may want to make adjustments, perhaps balancing the amount of fiction material with more nonfiction. This has the added benefit of encouraging your child not only to read about the adventures of others but also to learn to do things.
Of course, this approach does not eliminate the need to think about what books will be allowed in your home. For example, you will likely want to screen the modern stories in the fiction category. Should you not be the one to decide just when you want your child to learn about sex, pregnancy and abortion? Likewise, while it is true that young ones should be taught that good people can make mistakes, are they really helped in their personality development by reading about victorious villains?
Similarly, do you want your child to believe that “might [power] makes right”? Rather, should not children be taught that there are right and wrong courses to take and that principles are important? Many believe that comic books that portray “superheroes” who destroy everything that stands in their way are a dangerous “model” or example for young ones.
Even in the area of nonfiction books, parents may find it worth while to leaf through the book before giving it to the child. Some books present certain races or nationalities in a bad light. Others contain very dogmatic statements.
For example, a book on science may present matters in a very matter-of-fact manner. It may assert that all life on earth evolved from lower forms and thus imply (or even state) that the Bible account of creation is simply a ‘religious myth.’ This may contradict the religious training the youngster is receiving. While father or mother might decide that the overall value of the book justifies the child’s reading it, the parent may first want to discuss with the child certain views presented in the material.
All of this takes time. But it says that you care. You want your child to learn but you want him to know what is for his good and happiness. The realities of this world cannot be escaped. There is a time and a way to approach them with each child. Yet, since that small, new life—usually full of wonder and eagerness to learn—is entrusted to you, do not underestimate how much your guidance, your love, can assist in the mental and emotional development of your youngster.
In addition, the wise parent recognizes that all of us—including small children—have a spiritual need. Little ones are often full of questions; sometimes they ask very hard questions. God’s Word, the Bible, is a rich source of wisdom. It can “give to the inexperienced ones shrewdness, to a young man knowledge and thinking ability.” (Prov. 1:4) Reading the Bible with your children will naturally bring you into discussions about the really important things. Most who have persisted in using the Bible as a moral guide have come to see it as more than fine literature, but as a needed “light” in life.—Ps. 119:105, 160; 36:9.
There is more literature available to children than ever before. Also, there is much competition for your child’s time—television and increasing recreational possibilities. You are right in encouraging your children to read. But you are wise to take an interest in what they read, to guide their youthful energy.
Perhaps in the final analysis it is as the philosopher Bacon once wrote: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”