Reading Shapes a Child's Character
by Joy Marie Dunlap
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is
pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any
excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on
these things" (Phil. 4:8).
Philippians 4:8 is an important verse to consider as you choose reading
material for your children. This not only includes the books you choose
to use as "literature," but also books your children read for fun.
All of our children's reading material affects them morally, including
the primers we use to teach them to read, the examples in their grammar
exercises, and the material we use for spelling, dictation, and reading
Young children do not segment the world into categories like, "This is
reading material for my edification and this other is just stuff for
learning how to read and for practicing reading skills." They do not
think, "This is about morals, values, and right and wrong," and "This is
just reading material which has nothing to do with morals." Everything
they read helps set their direction in life. Everything they see, hear,
read, and experience is about values and morals and right and wrong.
I think that perspective is valid. Just as you cannot laugh at an
off-color joke without being affected by it, a child cannot read about
unchecked sinful behavior or suggestions without being affected
adversely, even if it is "only" a reading lesson.
The written word is like a seed sown in fertile soil. When our children
read about foolish behavior, folly is the result in their lives. When
our children read about cute little animals or cartoon characters doing
things that our children shouldn't do, they are affected adversely by
what they have just read.
When our children read about children deceiving their parents, sneaking
and doing things behind their backs without their permission, taunting a
sibling, complaining about their chores, and indulging in similar
temptations without consequences following, don't be surprised when you
see them following each bad example. I have seen it happen every single
time I was not careful or let my standards slip a little for the sake of
a "pretty good book in every other way."
All of our children's reading material, including their readers and the
books we allow them to read to practice their reading skills, should be
carefully selected for reading content as well as for the teaching
purpose we are planning to use them for in our children's education.
Sticky notes can temporarily cover anything you don't want your children
to see or read in a library book (if you know you can trust them not to
look), and stickers and colored sticky shelf paper can be used in books
you own. I do this when the problems I encounter are small exceptions in
an otherwise excellent book. But resist the temptation to become
careless about your children's reading material because of time pressure
or other people's arguments that eventually they will see it all anyway.
A tender conscience is too precious a thing to trample and sear in a
child's tender years. Once seared, the conscience is never quite the
same again. It is true that one day our children will be old enough to
make their own moral decisions in life. It is also true that God holds
us accountable for the influences we allow in our children's lives while
they are still in our care.
The Bible says that if we are truly diligent to train up our children in
the way they should go, when they are grown they will not depart from
that same moral value system in which we trained them. God knows that
childhood is the time when we develop our moral sense and values in
life. Allowing bad influences in a child's life gives him a taste for
that kind of influence, so that in adulthood he will not only encounter
those kinds of influences, he will seek them out just as surely as a
moth is drawn to a candle flame.
Childhood is also the time when a person develops the most firmly rooted
and lasting life habits, based on childhood influences. It is then that
he develops the value of industry or slothfulness, meanness or kindness,
self-centeredness or benevolence, thankfulness or bitterness, pride or
humility. These values can be trained through our example and the
standards we hold for our children, but the influences our children are
exposed to affect them just as much.
When a child's reading material is all about figuring out how to be the
most popular, jealousy, dating and breaking up, getting even, resenting
parents or a sibling, and the sole pleasure of Number One, guess what
your child will be thinking about when the book is put down.
If, on the other hand, your child's reading material is about families
that love one another, these values will be the ones which take root in
your child's heart. The wise thing to do is to choose literature which
portrays people, and especially families, as hard-working, helping one
another with life's load, being honest with one another, and working
toward constructive life goals (as opposed to jealousy, constant strife,
self-indulgence, greed, pride, and revenge).
Look at Galatians 5:19-21 and you will see a list of traits that are
opposite to those of a person whose life is led by the Holy Spirit,
including "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery,
enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions,
factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these."
A story, to be realistic, is bound to include some aspect of evil and
the life of the flesh. However, to be suitable reading for our children,
these things should never be a repeated theme, an accepted thing, a
consistent trait of the main character or of a character who is upheld
in the story as exemplary or as a hero. If a story treats these kinds of
things casually or acceptingly, this is not acceptable reading material
for children in a Christian family.
Instances of the above should be commented on in the story as improper
and damaging behavior. They should either be shown to be traits of a
person who is understood in the story to have bad character, or they
should be traits which a main character is struggling against with some
degree of victory as the story progresses, and which the main character
or hero is truly ashamed of and resolves not to repeat.
Bad character should be shown in the story to have damaging and
regrettable results. I do not like a story with a judgmental tone that
shows no understanding for the hardships people face and their struggles
against sin. But I also reject a story which portrays sin as something
there need be no struggle against, or which we should learn to live with
comfortably as an acceptable part of our life experience.
As parents, I believe we are responsible for the picture we give our
children through the influences we allow and of what kinds of attitudes,
actions, character, and responses are right and good. Our children want
to know what to emulate, since they are naturally mimics. Our world
today is sorely lacking in positive examples of a useful, constructive,
loving, upright life. Our children's reading material is their example,
at least in part, whether or not we care to admit it. It is so important
that we be faithful in choosing material for our children which gives
them exemplary role models to copy in both actions and attitudes.
I recently informed our 8-year-old daughter that I am going to be
training her in some new kitchen responsibilities like washing the
fronts of the cupboards, wiping down the counters, and drying the dishes
(to be added to her current chores). Her response? She was so excited
she wrapped her arms around me and thanked me several times, laughing, a
merry sparkle in her eyes. Why? The influence of some of her favorite
reading material portrays the opportunity to help with household chores
as a privilege and a source of pride, happiness, and fulfillment. What
our children read really does make all the difference in their attitudes
and their whole outlook on life.
I want to inspire our children to be compassionate like Jesus by
exposing them to literature about upright people whose lives are full of
compassion in word, deed, and attitude. I want to inspire them to be
courageous by exposing them to stories about selfless courage. I want to
inplore them to be humble by giving them reading material about
nonpretentious, humble people, people who know their own need for
God—weak people, poor people, disabled people, disadvantaged people,
people in discouraging situations who have lived by II Cor. 12:9, which
says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in
I want our children to be inspired to overcome sin through reading
material about people who, in spite of a difficult battle with sin,
overcame it through God's power. I want to insprie our children's faith
with stories of miracles and the providing, protecting hand of God
coming through for His people in seemingly impossible situations.
I want to inspire our children to have right responses in difficult
situations with stories involving poeple who show the way. I want them
to discover what courtesy means through reading material depicting kind
and courteous people. And I want to inspire our children to live useful,
loving, constructive lives through reading material showing what great
good a useful, loving life can do in this world.
You are not going to find a perfect role model. Every Bible character
except for Jesus had one kind of sin or attitude problem or another at
some point in his life. Even David, who was called in Scripture "a man
after God's own heart."
However, the Bible treats all sin as wrong and unacceptable. The Bible's
stance toward sin is confrontational. We are not to be in the business
of judging our neighbor lest we be judged. However, we are to know that
God hates sin. Christ died to save the sinner, but He did not die to
make sin an acceptable thing which we are to live comfortably with. He
came to give us victory over sin. We need each other's encouragement,
not judgment, in overcoming sin. But at the same time, we do not want to
underestimate the damaging and destructive nature of sin in words,
deeds, or attitudes. This is the understanding which should influence
our decisions as we prayerfully decide what literature to allow and
disallow for our children's reading material.
It is hard, but not impossible, to find pure, wholesome, and exemplary
reading material for children, younger and older. You may well have to
work hard to find it in sufficient quantity, but are we afraid of a
little work for the sake of our children's lifetime well-being?
I consider looking for the right materials for our children to be an
important part of home schooling, and as such, I do not mind spending a
significant amount of time searching for and examining different
schooling and constructive leisure materials for them. When I go to the
library, I expect to work hard there, looking for the right books to
teach our children without influencing them wrongly. When I get home, I
expect to work hard at prereading those books before passing them on to
our children to read. I consider the work involved in surrounding our
children with excellent reading material to be as important as any other
aspect of Christian child training.
[Editor's Note: Everything in this article applies as much or more to
all forms of electronic media—movies, videos, TV, music or story tapes
or CDs, video games, and computer games or software.]