First, another creek anecdote, if you’ll pardon me. My oldest child tends to be fearful, the way imaginative children often are. She’s also a city kid, used to a landscape of eight-foot privacy fences and sidewalks, so anything resembling wilderness makes her uneasy (I realize this is a deduction of at least 15 CM points from my total; we’re working on it). For a long time, she even acted clingy and cautious at our familiar, tame neighborhood creek. Then, from one week to the next, that changed: suddenly she was boldly running ahead of me and forging her own path through the trees. I was confused about this transformation until I began to pay attention to the story she was telling herself. She wasn’t in the real world — she was absorbed in the reenactment of a fairy tale. Within the structure and security provided by a story, she’d found freedom and courage.
Witnessing this, I was reminded how much we need stories, how they liberate us from our limitations, guiding us beyond ourselves to wider experience and clearer vision. In childhood especially, the right story read at the right moment can be alchemical. How surprising it is, then, to encounter Charlotte Mason’s unenthusiastic words about reading to young children:
Away with books, and “reading to” — for the first five or six years of life. The endless succession of story-books, scenes, shifting like a panorama before the child’s vision, is a mental and moral dissipation; he gets nothing to grow upon, or is allowed no leisure to digest what he gets. (Vol. 5, p. 216)
Like many people, I was confused by this at first. How could picture books be objectionable? Don’t we want children to love reading? Our culture prizes early literacy; we are unaccustomed to anything but unqualified approbation for reading to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports reading to children regularly beginning at birth, based on research indicating that early exposure to books improves a child’s literacy and academic skills. However, it’s important to recognize that the beneficial effects of reading to infants and small children have more to do with the language-rich parent-child interaction that reading aloud facilitates than with simple exposure to books. AAP policies of literacy promotion are targeted for children in low-income, low-education households where parents’ language skills may be lacking and parent-child interactions may be less frequent or less intentional. For these parents, the recommendation to read aloud early and often provides a helpful model. In a household with a higher level of education and literacy it is less necessary.
Meanwhile, new research into sensory integration demonstrates how urgently children need active, physical play. We’re learning that academic and fine motor skills can only develop from a solid foundation of sensory, physical and gross motor skills. Young children need to be running, jumping, crawling, splashing in puddles, digging in the dirt, accumulating first-hand knowledge of the world that books cannot provide. Our local library has a book that is simply pictures of children playing with variously shaped boxes and container — yet whatever a child is supposed to learn from this would be much better learned by actually playing with boxes.
A child who’s been read a book about a farm has one kind of knowledge, but a child gains an entirely different kind of knowledge through tending even one cherry tomato plant in a pot, watching and waiting as flower becomes green fruit and green fruit ripens until at last it is ready for harvest. To gain these living experiences is, in Charlotte’s estimation, the primary occupation of early childhood:
“… for the first five or six years of his life, everything … is an object of intelligent curiosity to the child — the street or the field is a panorama of delight, the shepherd’s dog, the baker’s cart, the man with the barrow, are full of vivid interest. He has a thousand questions to ask, he wants to know about everything; he has, in fact, an inordinate appetite for knowledge. We soon cure all that: we occupy him with books instead of things; we evoke other desires in place of the desire to know; and we succeed in bringing up the unobservant man … [who] misses very much of the joy of living.” (Vol. 2, p. 181)
Still, given the current recommendations, no wonder many parents feel pressure to get their babies and toddlers to enjoy being read to, though most babies would rather chew a book than listen to it, and though it takes much wrangling to make a toddler sit and listen. Yet this is all developmentally normal, and appropriate language activities for these ages can accommodate rather than frustrate a young child’s need to move and explore the physical world. For instance, singing, playing movement-based games, and reciting mother goose and other clapping, counting, and ‘activity’ rhymes are all language-rich activities (arguably more so than your average board book) that honor babies’ and toddlers’ need for sensory-motor input.
Like many children, my daughter had no interest in books until she was two, but then she developed a voracious appetite for them. Now, she will happily sit and listen to one book after another. While this is charming, I’ve come to understand that it isn’t necessarily healthy to indulge her: I’ve observed the frenzy of mental and emotional activity that even a single story can create. When we first read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, for example, she talked about it for days. She needed to process Peter’s disobedience and Mr. MacGregor’s villainy, to play with the plot, to rework her understanding of the world around this big new story.
This brings us back to where we began, back to the power of story to inform and transform — even a little story like Peter Rabbit. A writing professor of mine once said that a good story won’t permit us to remain unchanged, but that “we should have to remake ourselves in its aftermath.” How true this must be for children, for whom each story discloses a new constellation of ideas about a world they are only beginning to understand.
In The Bible and the Task of Teaching, David Smith writes:
The stories that surround us help to make us what we become. They shape our attitudes to life, form our ideals, and supply our vision. They provide us with identity and ways of living. They furnish us with heroes and antiheroes . . . They are part of the warp and woof of our language and thought, of our whole experience of the world and our way of living. (pp. 70-71)
The narratives we encounter — from the Gospel to television commercials — provide us with “scripts” for life. Deprived of stories, or “presented mainly with unhealthy narrative models for life,” a child grows up “unscripted” or “mis-scripted” (p. 71).
But if it is possible to be unscripted or mis-scripted, is it also possible for a child in his earliest years to be overscripted? To be supplied with more stories than he can process? Though perhaps it goes against popular sentiment, I’m inclined to think so. Recall Charlotte’s warning against the “endless succession of storybooks,” the child “allowed no leisure” to digest the books he has been read. I have seen children fall into a lethargic trance when read many books in a row; I have also seen children become anxious and overstimulated, especially if the books were above their comprehension.
Perhaps it is disrespectful to our small children’s tender minds and spirits to overwhelm them with stories. Perhaps it is disrespectful to the stories themselves. If our children’s books are of high quality, they aren’t meant to be consumed lightly like a pile of potato chips; good stories are bread and meat, nourishment to be savored. How much better to read one excellent story and then allow the child time and space to ponder.
In case you were waiting, this isn’t going to arrive at a nice, tidy conclusion. We still love picture books and enjoy reading aloud at my house. Read in context, I understand Charlotte’s words about picture books not as a literal prohibition against reading to children under age six, but as an exhortation to balance, moderation, selectivity, and respect for the small child’s well-being. And although her advice in this seems to run contrary to contemporary opinion, there is wisdom here that deserves our consideration.
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