Recently, I’ve had many conversations with people about whether or not children should be reading books written for an older audience. Authors and publishing houses categorize children’s books into several age groups: Board books (0–2), picture books (2–6), early readers and chapter books (6–9), middle grade (8–12), and young adult (13–19). Books in each category differ in several important ways, including reading difficulty, length of text, sophistication of vocabulary, and, most important, the content or subject matter. This last one, I believe, is where the real conversation lies.
I’ve been teaching K-12 children for more than two decades, and in that time I have seen the type of books available to children change perceptibly. Media in general has changed significantly. Children are being exposed to more graphic and mature visuals, language, and subject matter than they were in the past century (“past century”? That makes me sound really old), and it is having an effect on them; what kind of effect is for you to decide. When I heard a few years back that parents were taking their 6- and 7-year-old children to see The Hunger Games (based on the book written for young adults about a society in which the government has forced teenagers to fight each other to the death), I realized something seriously strange and disturbing was going on.
What happened to childhood? Remember that time when all the world was magical and good and safe, and imagination was the name of the game? Doesn’t that sound to you like what you want for your child? Do we really want our 6-year-olds watching movies and rearing books about kids who purposefully and violently kill each other?
One argument I have heard in favor of allowing children to read anything they want, regardless of the intended audience, is that they will inherently know what they can handle and what they cannot; that they will skip over disturbing parts, put the book down, or simply read on and not fully understand the content. I can respect that school of thought for some children and for some books. However, not all children can do this. And the maturity level of some books is not immediately obvious to a child. This is where free rein on reading concerns me.
Children like limits. This is one of the golden rules a rookie teacher eventually learns. It feels counterintuitive, especially to young teachers, but limits keep children feeling safe and cared-for. In spite of our very best intentions of wanting them to have choice in their lives and to be able to make their own decisions, children’s brains are not fully developed, and many of those decisions are beyond their ability developmentally. Imagine expecting a toddler to tell you exactly what he’d like to eat for dinner, how he’d like it prepared, and what time he’d like it served: Not very realistic.
Parents and teachers are guides. We are here to help children navigate their world in a safe and loving way, encouraging curiosity and learning while being careful not to expose them to so much in the world at once that it will cause undue stress, fear, and discomfort.
Here’s my bottom line. There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful books in the world written with your child in mind, for his age, for her developmental stage, and for his interests. Please consider offering those books to your child. Here’s the other important part. The other books — the ones intended for an older audience — will always be there. They’re not going anywhere, and there is absolutely no rush for children to read them until they (and you) are ready. Once they’ve read books beyond their years, it gets harder and harder for them to maintain interest in books written for them. Do we really want our children to grow up that fast? Enjoy every moment, because once childhood is over, there’s no going back.
Ultimately, as parents, we need to decide what is best for our own children. And it’s always good to have as much information as we can before making those decisions. Whatever you decide, conversation with your children about reading material is a wonderful way to build a relationship, trust, and lifelong learning. Read on!
Deb Dunn is the literacy coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School: