Something Borrowed: Let Children Read What They Want

Working in the children’s section of a bookstore, I see a lot of adults with children, and I enjoy thinking about the dynamics of parenting and how best to do it. Today, for this cycle’s non-poetry post, I plan to talk about parents who keep a close rein on their children’s reading, which I tend to think is a bad idea in most situations. Not necessarily if the child is into fantasy and you earnestly believe that it will invite the devil into their lives (or I at least sympathize more, because you’re acting out of genuine concern over what you perceive as a genuine and serious danger to the child); not necessarily if the child will read nothing but practical instructions on how to build bombs. But here are some cases where I think parents need to back off:

1. “That book’s too hard for you!”

My kind mother let me read anything I wanted to, which in elementary school primarily was The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Diane Duane, the Animorphs, books on UFOs, and books on parenting that I could laugh at. If some adult had told me a book was too hard for me, I would still be laughing at them indignantly today (one of my coworkers wanted to read The Last of the Mohicans at seven and is still angry that the librarian wouldn’t let him have it. I sympathize entirely.)

I recognize that budgets are limited, and many children are capable of demanding a difficult book and then never looking at it again (in this case, I would recommend looking for the book at the library, not forbidding the child to read it.)

However, being a slave to measured reading levels still doesn’t seem wise to me.

For one thing, studies show that children can read above their level if they’re interested in what they’re reading. (This…does not surprise me in the least. I find it orders of magnitude harder and less rewarding to focus on things I don’t want to read than to read things I do.)

For another, I do not think it is, generally speaking, harmful to 1) read something that is over your head (most of my favorite books are over my head) or 2) try to read something you want to read and fail. 2) certainly requires tact and psychological perceptiveness, because I suspect it depends on the child, but if I had to guess, I would guess that cautions about not getting kids in for frustrating reading experiences are mostly about things you’re making the child read, not things the child wants to read. 

2. “That book’s for babies!”

This I often hear when five- or six-year-old children pick up board books (the books with cardboard pages that are designed to be harder for toddlers to tear to pieces and eat), despite the fact that the text of the book is often identical to the text of the picture book version (the one with paper pages).

This ties into a larger problem I have with the concept of “growing up.”

Yes, there are parts of childhood that are good to leave behind–the part where little things matter so much and it’s just unbearable not to be be able to eat that M&M or the part where your conscience isn’t working 100% yet or the part where you don’t understand things as easily and can’t navigate the world on your own–but there are also parts of childhood that are widely acknowledged to be bad to give up: creativity, spontaneity, curiosity.

And there are parts of childhood that are, in my mind, neither good nor bad, and I would put “liking board books” into that category along with things like “sleeping with stuffed animals” and “playing pretend.”

Maybe there are neurological reasons that the bad parts and neutral parts of growing up tend to happen with the good. I am open to the possibility that the fact (for instance) that I have never given up playing pretend (though I mostly do it by writing nowadays) reflects some neurological strangeness in me—possibly even a neurological strangeness that is harmful overall. Still, the fact that something  (make-believe) might be caused by something harmful does not make the make-believe in itself harmful. I remember looking in the mirror at the age of twelve and promising myself, in anger and in terror that I might fail in my promise, that I would not give up acting out little fanfiction scenes to myself about books that I loved, and I think I more or less haven’t.

3. “You’ll read that in a day! You need something longer and harder.”

The problem with this statement, from my point of view, is that it implies books are fungible and reading is a Task That is Educational, not fun. For me, and, it seems, for many of my customers, neither of these things is true. Books are not fungible. I could read an Animorphs book in an hour or two, by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade. This did not stop me from waiting for the next with intense excitement (they were coming out one a month), and it did not make any other book an adequate substitute. For me, at least, reading was not an activity undertaken for its own sake. It was undertaken out of love for what I was reading about. The parents who said these things would have made me very sad and angry.

4. “You need to branch out!”

This usually happens when the adult thinks the child is unduly obsessed with something. The something can be Frozen or Minecraft or science fiction. The adult insists that the child buy something outside their area of interest. Just like I do not understand the problem with refusing to “grow up” in harmless ways, I do not understand the problem with single-minded obsession. I would have it over apathy any day, and I’ve experienced my share of both.

(Note: I would have more sympathy with this adult perspective if the kid weren’t stuck in school all day for more than half the year learning about the other perspectives and gaining the breadth the adult wants to impose on their leisure time.)

Of course, the adults will sometimes have more substantial reasons for taking issue with their children’s obsessions. For instance, Disney movies and Barbies are…not, perhaps, the epitome of feminism, and Minecraft can be rather violent. In these cases, I think it’s worth looking more closely at the medium of choice with an open mind before forbidding it to your children.

My mother wanted to bring me up in a feminist and gender-neutral way, and was initially alarmed when a friend gave me a Barbie in an iridescent dress for my birthday when I was three or four, and my reaction was, “SQUEEEEEEEeeee she looks like a fairy!!!” I adored Barbies–and ended up, thanks to my mom’s open-mindedness, with an ungodly collection of them that I still keep part of under my bed. But I did not wind up internalizing damaging beauty ideals (rather the opposite; it’s hard for me to remember to brush my hair). Instead, I searched the face of each for her or occasionally his personality, played long, complicated games with all of them based on (of course) fantasy novels, aliens, and the typologies in child-rearing books, and still have one novel attempt based on one of my favorite Barbie games.

I suspect many adults’ problem with their children’s obsessions is that on a social level the adults find it repugnant—they would be annoyed with an acquaintance who cared excessively about something they think is stupid, and they want to mold the child not only into a happy, well-adjusted adult but into someone they like socially and would want to be friends with. I can sympathize with this, but I don’t think it’s helpful, or likely to work.

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