You Let Him Read What?

Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear.
Judy Blume, as quoted in Good Advice (1993) by William Safire, p. 125

A child comes up to you and asks to read a book that concerns you. Another child discusses a book at recess with their classmates, and you wonder if you should allow them to continue. What happens if that child convinces others to read it?

It may be a third grader who wants to finish the Harry Potter series. Is it too dark? Will it terrify him?

Perhaps it's a dystopian novel with overtones of mature content. Will it create uncomfortable conversation?

With the popularity of books like The Hunger Games and the proliferation of young adult novels, this comes up more and more when I talk with parents. As a teacher of gifted students - who often read well above their grade level - this question becomes a huge concern between 3rd and 5th grade especially. I know it's been a topic of discussion on Twitter from time to time as well. Until now, I've stayed out of the chatter because I know my views often aren't very popular.

Controversial books get challenged for a reason, and I completely understand a parent deciding that any particular book isn't right for their child. As a teacher, I support a parent's right to have their child hold off reading a book for any reason. Whether it is that the book is too sad, or includes profanity, or introduces topics of sexuality that they don't feel their child is ready to handle - that decision belongs squarely in the hands of the parents.

When parents ask me how I handle making the decision when my own children ask to read a book that may have content beyond their years, though, my philosophy sometimes surprises them. I almost always say "yes".

Before I get lynched, let me state that I don't just let my children wander around the adult section of the library - pulling books randomly off the shelf. Since my sons are in elementary school, it's not like they are asking to read Water for Elephants. They don't get exposed to books that are that far outside their maturity zone yet. As a voracious reader myself, I usually have read - or at least heard about - any of the books they are curious about reading. If I'm really concerned about a title they want to read, I'll research it a bit and/or read it myself. I'm a quick reader, I can handle it.

Before they decide to begin a book, we talk about it. I explain that there may be some things in the book that may make them upset, or that they may want to talk to me about. I tell them if there are going to be "kissing parts", or deaths, or things that could scare them. I know my sons well enough to decide what I might want to tell them before they read. That's my job as a parent and a reader. I remind them that if they decide to read it and something comes up that makes them uncomfortable - they are in control. They can talk to me about questions-  they can put down the book and come back to it when they feel ready. Both of these things have happened.

Kids are exposed to more than you know. Talk on the bus, lyrics in music, and references on television have already planted the seeds of questions in their minds. No matter how carefully we insulate them, they notice. They wonder. They worry. Especially if they are highly sensitive, perceptive, and intelligent. Books give them a way to process in a way that they can control. A book can be put down. A fictional world lets them try on reactions and rehearse situations in a safe environment.

"What if they come across something they aren't ready to hear/learn about?"
I can't begin to tell you how many times as an adult I've reread a book I read when I was younger and thought, "wow, I completely missed that part". As I've talked to experts in the field of gifted/advanced readers, I've found that their case studies show the same thing. (Unfortunately, as they are mostly case studies, I don't have any links to share here.) A young mind is only really able to visualize or understand the things they are on the cusp of knowing.

On the flip side, I think as adults we sometimes underestimate what kids have already absorbed. I don't watch the news with my sons, but they still hear about some of the atrocities in our world. I haven't yet had "the talk" with them either, but I'm not foolish enough to believe that they don't have at least some inkling that something more than just holding hands happens between a romantically involved couple.

Within the bounds of what I've already said - that I'm helping guide them toward choices that are right for them - I think we often worry too much about this. I have had one son put books aside that he decided were "boring".. and I think it was because the focus

"Won't they miss out on great literature designed for their age group?"
Maybe. Maybe not. There are thousands of wonderful books published every year. Do we really expect they will read them all? My younger son read Harry Potter AND Magic Tree House. He also devours graphic novels and the picture books I've been bringing home (like Chu's Day by Gaiman - so cute!) These strong young readers will still read things "meant" for their age level, even if we give them permission to read beyond their years.

"Why does he need to read ____ anyway? Is it just so that his parents can brag about how sophisticated a reader he is?"
No. Just no. Okay - maybe some parents brag about how precocious a reader their child is. But when a child is begging to read a book, sometimes it means it IS what she needs.

"I just saw a child reading _____ in line at the grocery store. What was his/her mother thinking?"
Hopefully my open discussion of what *I* am thinking will help you when this thought jumps into your head. Just because that kid is reading something you might not want your own child to read doesn't mean he will be emotionally scarred. It may be the entry point to a discussion she needs to have with her parent. It may be that the mature aspects have gone right over his head and he's only enjoying the adventure. Books can be experienced on many levels, and perhaps that child is getting exactly what he needs from that title.

"You let him read WHAT?" 
I have had some books I've let my sons read that I've told them not to discuss outside the house. Not because I regret allowing them to read it, but because I'm tired of justifying my choices to others. So please, don't judge.


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