When I was a little girl, I learned to read pretty early on. Because I have a late September birthday, I was technically almost six when I went into kindergarten. Having a little ‘age edge’ probably helped, but I definitely had a deep desire to learn, too, especially when it came to reading. So the minute I was able to decipher letters on a page, I hit the ground running.
You’d rarely find me without a book, magazine, or even a newspaper in my grubby little hands all throughout elementary school. And while I was in no way a tiny Einstein, I do feel like it set me up for a solid future as far as my education was concerned.
Was I reading deep, meaningful classics and works of great literary merit? Probably not, especially at that age. I did read a little above my age. I did choose books that had dragons and smart girls and mysteries in them. But the most important thing that all the books I read had in common were that I chose them. No one told me that this book or that book was too silly, too old, or too babyish for me. My parents and teachers and librarians were smart enough and kind enough to encourage me to read anything and everything I wanted, even the stuff that some people consider ‘junk.’
My daughter is in elementary school. She likes to read, but not quite as much as I did at her age, I don’t think. But of course, I never had the distractions that she has to contend with. There was no internet, you YouTube, and no Netflix calling out from the luring glow of a tablet or smartphone conveniently and constantly in reach.
I try to practice the moderation approach to most things, so while I let her use devices for things like watching programs and playing games, I also make sure there are lots of books on there, too. My daughter uses an app that lets her read children’s books of all kinds. Some are very simple children’s books, some are novels, and others are graphic novels or comic book-style stories. She reads pretty well for a third-grader, but she still loves to let the tablet ‘read’ for her most of the time. And she has a pretty varied taste in books, some of which are not what I’d consider to be genius-making material.
Some of the books are nonsensical, filled with fart humor and holding an appeal that only kids of a certain single-digit age can appreciate. Some of them have very few words and lots of pictures. Others have characters that are clearly designed to remind kids that there is a toy out there to match the book so tell your parents to check it out at the shops.
Would I love my daughter to read only well-written, highbrow books that teach great moral lessons and that only encourage learning? Um, actually, I wouldn’t. I mean, I’d love for her to choose these kinds of books every now and then, maybe even most of the time. But these other books, the ‘junk’ books, they serve a very important purpose. Just like the occasional sweet treats we indulge in, these books add a little flavor to our kids’ reading lives.
My nephew is close to the same age as my daughter. My sister (his mom) was lamenting his favorite choice of books, which happen to be a pretty popular series (Dog Man by Dav Pilkey). She wanted him to read older books, ones that we read as kids. And I get that — who doesn’t love to share their favorite childhood books with their kids? I mean, introducing my daughter to Anne of Avonlea and Nancy Drew and Aerin from the Hero and the Crown has been high on my to do list since the kid first learned her ABCs. But if she prefers Piggy & Gerald right now, I am not going to stop her.
Book-shaming is a real passion killer. I don’t want to curb her enthusiasm for reading by telling her any book is too babyish, too silly, or not ‘old enough’ for her. And while I’m not shoving a Stephen King novel into her hands just yet, I’m also not stopping her from seeking out more challenging books (while monitoring for inappropriate content, of course).
Reading is important for many reasons, not all of which are purely educational. It helps them develop empathy for others and shows them that there are many different ways to exist in our world. They can walk in the shoes of those who are physically, spiritually, and mentally different than they are, and they can find comfort in seeing characters like themselves in books of all kinds. Even if we as parents can’t see why a child likes a certain character or book, our kids know why they do. Let them decide which stories to experience because so much else in their lives at this age is out of their hands, and reading puts them in charge of at least this one thing.
Books can be a wonderful educational tool, but they can also be an escape. Kids today are dealing with so much more than we can imagine, from a world where being always online gives little refuge from drama and bullies, to a pandemic that leaves them feeling uncertain and afraid. Books are like an escape hatch that is always open, ready to give them just a few minutes of peace in hectic, scary times. Let them read the silly fart books. Let them spend time watching Spongebob make stupid choices. Let them enjoy reading for reading’s sake because someday soon enough, the world will be harder to escape from through the pages of a book.