What Kids Read: How Stories Develop Us

By Meghan Cox Gurdon
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As long as kids are reading, does it matter what they read? It does. Here's why.

As long as a kids are reading, does it matter what they read? I believe it does. Adolescence is the time when a person begins to furnish his mind in earnest, creating the rooms, as it were, through which his thoughts will move as he matures into adulthood. What he reads will help determine whether his mind becomes a place filled with beautiful objects, vivid characters and sophisticated ideas — or with things that are cheap, lurid, ugly and second-rate.

It may seem a lot to ask of books — and of kids! — but it isn’t, really. The trick is to engage your children‘s rapidly developing capacity for discernment on their own behalves.

Human curiosity and literature

Many parents believe that the most important thing is to guide kids away from edgy storytelling that might coarsen them or fill their heads with misery, torture or horrid images that may be difficult for them to shake off. (This is worth doing. No young person needs such furniture in her mind.) Yet in making judgments about books for kids, we must take care to respect both the nature of human curiosity and of literature itself.

The truth is that even good, sweet kids are going to be attracted to a certain amount of unpleasantness. Rubbernecking is part of the human condition: We all slow down to look at road accidents. So it’s not only foolish but also unfair to expect children to be purer in impulse than we are as grown-ups. It’s also important to remember that stories without conflict, without some darkness or trouble, can’t properly be called stories at all. Without Sauron’s consuming evil, there’s no nobility in Frodo’s sacrifice; without Vronsky, there would be no Anna Karenina.

A child’s trust level

Of course, each child is different and parents know the level of trust a child has earned, but simply telling an adolescent that something is corrupt or degenerate and that she must not read it suggests that she can’t be trusted — that the adults who love her think she’s neither subtle nor sensible enough to survive an encounter with an edgy or trashy (or irredeemably shallow) piece of writing. It’s not a question of surviving, but of thriving. So except in cases where kids have shown they can’t be trusted with their reading materials because of their need to push boundaries or succumb to peer pressure, the real question for her is: Why would she bother?

“Oh, you can do better than that,” said with respect for the quality of a young person’s mind and integrity is much more persuasive than scornful condemnation. It’s a question of opportunity, of choosing books that are worth an adolescent’s time and attention and a place amid the furnishings of her mind.

It’s good to show children that we take their intellectual and imaginative development seriously and that we trust they want the best for themselves unless they show us otherwise. If we can help young people acquire a bias for beauty and a taste for good writing in childhood and while they are teens, it will sustain them through the long years to come when they can read whatever they want . . . just as we do.

Copyright © 2014 by Meghan Cox Gurdon.

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About the Author

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Meghan Cox Gurdon is the children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal and the author of The Enchanted Hour: The miraculous power of reading aloud in the age of distraction.