Should you be vetting your kids’ reading material? For many, the answer seems so obvious, you don’t even need to ask the question. To make sure kids are choosing books that meet their approval, many parents “pre-read” and “pre-select” books for their kids well past the chewing on the board book stage.
It turns out they are doing their children a terrible disservice. Not only do I believe that children should be allowed to read whatever they want, I have the research to prove it. In short, letting kids pick what they want to read leads to higher academic achievement, increased literacy and improved writing skills. The research also supports letting kids choose what they want to read at home, especially over the summer. (For a good summary of the evidence, check out https://www.teachhub.com/how-motivate-students-letting-them-choose-books. )
Still not convinced? Then consider that allowing children choice in their reading was recently declared a fundamental right by the International Literacy Association. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=international-literacy-association-creates-childs-rights-to-read.
So here’s why it all matters, and why pre-reading for your kids will backfire.
Kids need to learn how to make their own choices. You worry your kids might make bad decisions when they become teenagers, and get into serious trouble. The best way to prevent that is by teaching kids to make good choices from a very young age. Choosing reading material is a gateway to learning how to make other, more significant choices later on. Picking a novel you didn’t like turns out to be pretty low risk, with a high payoff.
When choosing their own books, kids develop their own judgment and tastes. They learn for themselves when they’ve grown out of something, or that they need to push themselves to develop the skills they need. They become experienced with the very act of making their own decisions and thinking for themselves. What can be more important than that?
- Children’s interests are fluid and surprising. No matter how well you know your child, you can’t know what oddball thing might catch their eye. By choosing book for them, you are keeping their world view narrow – and tied to yours.
Classics are not necessarily better. I’ve heard many parents decry contemporary books, saying they’re not “as good” as the classics, or books they remember from their own youth. So they reject many contemporary books, and demand their kids read only older, “better”
Sorry, that’s just wrong. Classic books have their appeal, but they are not necessarily better. Often, they don’t appeal to contemporary readers because they were written for a different audience. Times change, tastes change. We don’t wear the same clothes we wore in 1967. We shouldn’t be giving our kids the same 1967 books either.
Furthermore writing techniques have vastly improved since the birth of the book. Read a paragraph of The Great Gatsby, and you might be shocked by how ‘sloppy’ it is. All those adverbs would have never gotten past a contemporary editor!
I didn’t know about racist stereotypes or rigid gender norms when I was a kid, reading classics like Babar or Curious George. I didn’t notice them in those beloved books either. I notice them now. It’s disturbing to discover how biased some of these old favourites are.
Letting children choose a more up-to-date book, instead of consigning them to your old favorites, will help to eliminate this insidious conditioning.
- There is no “right” reading level. The right book for a child is one they want to read. So what if it’s too easy? Don’t you ever sit down with a piece of fluff, or an old favorite, when you want to de-stress? And so what if, conversely, it’s too hard? That’s actually motivating. Your kid will up her reading game if she can’t yet master that how-to on skateboard tricks she's dying to learn.
You simply can’t shield kids from the world. I’ve heard parents get upset that their kids might be exposed to sexual content or vulgar language from books. Here’s what I say to that: BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!
Kids talk on the playground. Kids hear things, and see things. You know about the Internet? Yes, they probably have already seen porn. Even if your kids have no access to screens etc. etc.,at home, they are guaranteed they pick up bits and bobs from friends at school. (Psst – when you’re not around, they are reading the book you ix-nayed with their buddies…..)
It’s ok if the book upsets them. Life is tough. It’s full of sadness and hardship and loss. It’s true - reading about these parts of life can sometimes cause kids distress. I remember to this day my shock and horror reading Bambi. Bambi’s mother died? I was upset for weeks. My son reports a similar experience reading Old Yeller.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read upsetting books, or stop our kids from reading them. That distress is actually good for kids. It allows them to process their emotions and come to terms with difficult life realities, in a safe way. Think of reading about grief as a rehearsal for - and inoculation against - real life grief. Sad or troubling books help kids cope.
- You’re sending a message of trust. By letting kids choose what they want to read, you are communicating your belief in your child, that they are mature and trustworthy. This subtle message will pay off in the long term.
While I clearly don’t think we should be pre-reading and choosing our kids’ books, that doesn’t mean we parents should be completely hands-off. The best way to stay involved with your kids is by reading with them. Let them choose the book, but then read it together. Discuss it. Share your opinions. What do you like about it and why? What annoys you? Be available if they need help with a new word, or have a question.
And don’t forget to read for pleasure yourself. The best way you can help your child grow as a reader is by modeling a life long love of books.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.