Five Rules for Your Child’s Reading
How to help a child read well, when the choices are so good and so bad.
Kids want to read. Even with the web and video games, they want to read. Which means they want to read books they shouldn’t read as well as books they should: books everyone is talking about, including their Christian friends, books they see advertised all over the place — books you have to read or be the weird kid who hasn’t read them. Let me offer a few suggestions for parents whose children may want to read these books, if for no other reason than that other children are reading them.
First, do not assume, as I once did, that the average children’s or young adult book may be secular but is at least respectful of the moral law and of parental authority. It likely is not.
The back cover of one featured by a local chain bookshop, to take an example almost at random, includes in its description of the major characters: “Zach: Sophisticated college boy, wise in the ways of French painting as well as other French things.” The narrator has the usual life problems of a teenager, at least the teenagers in these stories. She loses her virginity to Zach, and this is treated as part of growing up, of becoming a better, more mature person — someone assertive, confident and clear-headed. This idea of the child’s good life is typical of this kind of book, even the ones without any mention of sex, the ones that would be rated PG if they were movies.
Even when the books do respect the moral law, they still assume a secular world, with religion absent or appearing only in characters who are at best odd but usually judgmental, hypocritical, cruel. These books tell children that religion has no role in life — that at best it’s a personal lifestyle choice, like being a vegetarian or buying season tickets to local minor league baseball team. It is not something making a public truth claim. They make a secular world feel normal and a religious world feel weird.
Second, to the extent you can, vet your children’s reading, starting as young as possible. You will have to say no sometimes (see the next point) but fortunately not always. While vetting his reading, suggest and supply alternatives. You’re not saying “No,” you’re saying “Not this, but maybe that or that.”
You can find a vast amount of good writing that a child will enjoy, and so much that you should find something for every child’s tastes. This includes the obvious classics, like the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Jungle Book, Jane Austen’s novels, The Lord of the Rings and a lot of books you won’t have heard of until you start looking. Among my children’s favorites of this sort were Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels (which are gripping) and John R. Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog stories (which are hysterical).
Many of those classics will be effectively secular books, even though they have an implicit Christian understanding of the world and the moral law. Others, like The Lord of the Rings, will be deeply Christian works whose Christianity doesn’t appear on the surface. These will help form your child’s imagination as it should be formed, but as a child in a secular world competing hard to form his imagination, your child also needs to see Christianity expressed directly.
You will have to push a little to find more overtly Christian works that are good without being preachy. After reading the Sherlock Holmes stories with my children, we read G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which are also great stories of an interesting detective but include a great deal of Christian insight, explicit and implicit. (Erickson is, by the way, a Christian, though his stories aren’t explicitly so. But they are hysterical.)
Third, do not be afraid to upset your child by telling him he can’t read something he really wants to. As I have told ours about movies they want to see but can’t, you will never be harmed by something you didn’t see. I have also told them that I have seen movies I now profoundly wish I hadn’t, because some images never leave you. I can think of one to which I was taken by a Baptist minister, which gave me more exposure to real evil than I needed. The effect is like a stain that can’t ever be completely cleaned.
Ban anything that is outright seditious, and be prepared to enforce the ban against howls of protest that everyone else is reading it. You will be surprised to find that some of your children’s friends from Christian families are reading books you wouldn’t read yourself. Your child will, understandably, want to read them too. You just have to be the not-cool parent. Explain why you’re banning it, but you can’t assume your child will ever really understand.
If the child really, really wants to read a book that is in some lesser way objectionable, you might let him read it, but read it yourself and discuss it with him. I am actually not sure about this, simply because a talk can never erase the effect of a bad book. The story will be more compelling, and affect his imagination more deeply and lastingly, than your moral abstractions possibly can. He may trust you, he may believe you implicitly, but the story has still buried in his mind a dangerous or misleading image of the way the world is.
Fourth, read to your child as much as you can and for as long as you can. Read every day. Read good books and books slightly too old for him. (But if he’s just not connecting with a book, even if it’s a great book you loved at his age, drop it. There are lots of other good books he’ll connect with. You want him to remember reading with you as a pleasure.) Use the books as a way to explore certain issues and questions with him as they come up in the books themselves. I fully realize how difficult this is, and myself have sometimes failed to do this, but reading to him is one of the very best things you can do for a child.
Heaven knows the average school is not going to expose him to many of the classics, much less the great Christian works — and if they do, the school will tend to modernize and secularize them. Notice, for example, how the student abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe leave out the religious meditations that are central to the work and turn it into another story of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s still a good story, but it’s not the story Defoe told. This is another way secular enterprises create the impression that the world is secular: by erasing the evidence that it was ever so religious.
Fifth, immerse your child in the reading of Scripture and in the life of the church — from worship to Bible studies to charity work — and every other activity that can shape his imagination as Christian because he acts it out. The greatest prophylactic against cultural infection is not a shield but his love for something better and greater and more heroic.
Something like the Christian story, in fact. This is the map you want to give him, the image of reality you want most profoundly impressed upon his brain, so his thoughts will run naturally upon it. Reading alone can’t teach a child to see the world as a Christian, but it can help him do so or keep him from doing so, depending on what he reads and with what mind he reads it.
Parts of “Five Rules” are taken from Bad Books for Kids, which appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone. It won the “Award of Excellence” (first place) in the “Personally Useful Article” category in the 2010 Associated Church Press competition.