Is there a line that fantasy literature or speculative fiction in general can cross? I know some parents steer clear of the genre (see Friday’s guest article by Marian Jacobs) for just such a reason—there might be “evil things” that my child will read about, and I need to protect him from such.
Good parenting does mean the adults will make decisions on behalf of the child to protect him. “Hold my hand when we cross the street, Honey.” “Matches are not play things.” “We’ll keep the training wheels on until you’re a little older.”
Besides protecting children physically, parents also should protect their children emotionally and spiritually. Consequently, there are certain things that are not “age appropriate” that are on the internet, TV, Netflix, movies.
We seem fine with movie ratings that tell us which ones might have content that is not suited for small children, or even for young teens. Why, then, would not the same be true about books?
Not that I’m advocating rating systems. Those are only as good as the people doing the ratings and the standards they use. It’s pretty hard to insure their opinion will dovetail with each of ours. More than that. Rating systems take the responsibility off the shoulders of parents, where it belongs.
Parents should be aware and involved in the thought life of their children, and what they read feeds into their thoughts as much, if not more, than what they see.
So, what’s a parent to do, who has heard from this source or that, that fantasy is evil, yet their child wants to read the hot new book that all her classmates are reading, which just happens to be a fantasy?
I think there are some simple steps to take.
- Resist the temptation to make a decision about fiction based on “what everyone is saying.” Simply because someone says Harry Potter is teaching witchcraft or is opposed to Christian truth, resist concluding that therefore Harry Potter is a book your child should not read or that all fantasy is taboo.
- Read the books yourself. If your child wants to read a book you’ve heard about but aren’t sure about, either read it first or read it with your child.
- Ask yourself what is true in this book, what is beneficial and then what is questionable or detrimental. Can a reader learn from the negative as well as the positive?
- Engage your child in conversations about the various elements in the book. We can learn much about what children need, not by lecturing them out of context, but by asking them questions about characters they are invested in. Should Harry have done that? (since I’m using the Harry Potter books as examples.) What does Harry do that is consistent with the teaching of Scripture? How should he react to teachers who have questionable ethics or behavior? To fellow students?
I’d also add, resist the urge to turn reading into a lesson each and every time you discuss it. Sometimes it’s good to hear what your child liked in the chapter you read, what made the most impression on them, what they think will happen next.
But when are kids “too old” to be read to? For years I read to my 7th and 8th grader English classes every Friday afternoon. I suspect kids are too old when they lose interest in having an adult read to them. That doesn’t mean a parent shouldn’t also read the books they read, preferably before they do.
The point here is simple. Sometimes kids will come across something “objectionable,” something you’d rather they didn’t have to deal with, but would you rather have them deal with it on their own, in real life, without your guidance, or through fiction in conjunction with your counsel? In other words, “bad things” aren’t always “bad” in books, in the sense that your child shouldn’t be exposed to them.
I know comparing the Bible to fiction is often a tired argument, but when we talk about allowing kids to look at the real world and to give input into their conclusions, I think the Bible is an accurate comparison to fiction. Should we keep kids from knowing that King David committed adultery? that Samson was a womanizer? that Moses killed a man? At some point the Bible “stories” have to become connected to real life. Otherwise “do this” and “don’t do this” will never make sense. Our children will miss what God was doing in the lives of the people they read about in Scripture.
So with fiction and in particular, fantasy, children need to come to a point where they understand heroes have flaws and need to seek forgiveness or help or hope for the future. Evil happens and should be exposed as evil, not brushed under the rug or ignored as if it wasn’t there.
You as an adult can give them guidance about things like magic and wizardry. You can ask them if they think they could ever do the things Harry Potter does. In other words, you can be sure they have a good grasp of what is pretend and what is real.
But of course, that implies that each of us has thought through the issues of the imaginary, the make-believe, the faery tale versus the real. I suppose that needs to come first.