Kids and books: Let’s take a minute and reflect on a common “non-pandemic” parenting dilemma. Yes, we are not talking about COVID today! We’re talking about kids, books, and what is “appropriate” to read.
Books are on my mind these days for several reasons. First of all, there has been a return to conversations about restricting or banning specific books in some schools. Second, a few weeks ago my middle school student asked me if she could read a sci-fi book, Divergent. Without even looking up I said “of course.” I turned around to find her grinning triumphantly while saying, “This is great! You were the only mom who said it was OK to read this book. ” 😳 Jaw drop.
What is a parent to do? I’m lucky enough to have a panel of experts to turn to so I reached out to learn what the social norms are around prescreening books for kids. What I realized is that your relationship with books and children changes over time and ages.
Kids and books: early readers
While no two families approach this topic in the same way, it is not a surprise that most people feel when kids are young, prescreening books is a good approach. The books are short and fast, so it is easy to prescreen a range of books. Even then, it is possible to wade into topics you might not be ready to address.
Hilariously, a colleague recounted reading a book with references to death to her precocious three-year-old son. Of course, the preschooler could not get enough of discussion about death. While the original plan was not to delve into life and death, she followed her child’s lead, and she is glad she did. After lots of questions, he became very comfortable with the idea that death is a stage of life. I love this story because it highlights the fact that when we prescreen books, we also need to recognize our own bias and upbringing. While you might read right past a mention of death as a natural occurrence, your three-year-old might not have even considered the idea.
Kids and books: middle readers
It is more difficult to keep track of everything older kids are reading. Many kids are captivated by new novels that we may not have read yet. On the flip side, we may find some books we remember fondly from childhood may not have aged well and have content that is offensive or inappropriate.
Some might have other moments that bear some explaining in today’s world – like ‘greasers’ in “The Outsiders” or let’s not forget the pig’s bladder that was used as a soccer ball in the “Little House on the Prairie” series. My kids wanted to talk about that, a lot.
Luckily there are many resources to help find the right book. Librarians are goldmines and can help your child find wonderful books that are a good fit. The Seattle Public Library has online book lists, including books for teens, and information on the content of individual books. There are also many online tools that both make recommendations and have a summary of the book’s content specifically for parents.
Kids and books: older readers
As kids get older it is natural to have a lighter touch when it comes to prescreening books for them. But while you may be prescreening less, there is a great opportunity to engage with kids and books in a different way.
Books for older kids and teens often tackle serious topics: bullying, racism, injustice, and other major issues. Stories give us the opportunity to talk through subjects and situations and see things from different perspectives. Exploring big issues from the safety of a book before confronting them in the real world is a wonderful way to learn and can provide great topics for family conversations.
The best is when your child recommends books back to you. You can share in the stories and topics, connect with your child, and have a good sense of what your child is reading and what else might be appropriate for them.
Circling back to “Divergent,” the sci-fi story my daughter wanted to read; It turned out that while the main story was an epic science fiction tale there was some love and fighting. Kids mature at different ages, but I felt OK with her reading this. While it was definitely new territory, we had lots to talk about. Plus in all honesty, great literature almost always has love and conflict. While it turns out she was really only interested in the adventure, described the love as “gross,” and probably skimmed the conflict sections, I’m glad I did not stop her from reading the book.
I fully expect more adventures with books and kids. Have fun reading.
More from Dr. Block in Seattle’s Child:
8 tips to help kids develop an “attitude of gratitude”
Could my child have ADHD, or is it something else?
Keeping your kids safe while giving them more freedom
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