The law is liberal, taking in whatsoever things are true, honest, and of good report, and offering no limitation or hindrance save where excess should injure.
– Charlotte Mason
Not all gifted children are early readers; it’s true. However, comma, from my extremely small sample size, I have deduced that the earlier a child reads, the more tempted they are to excess in this area — to spend their time only on reading.
We call this Book Gluttony, which is amusing. So amusing, in fact, that we wonder if it should be taken seriously.
Well: should it? It’s a worthy question.
To answer it requires us to return to first principles. If the goal of our education is good character — virtue — rather than just knowing stuff, then things like this matter.
Virtue? Or Vice?
Early reading is a secret vanity in parents of the gifted. It’s remarkable, really, to see a three-year-old flying through a book with which some six-year-olds would struggle. When we see that three-year-old growing into an older preschooler or kindergartener who doesn’t want to do much other than read, we say, “Well, of course. All children would do the same if they had access to such things at this age.”
While reading is wonderful, is reading all the time really a virtue? Or is it a vice?
Temperance is one of those virtues our modern world ignores; half the time we’re not even sure what it means. Let’s see what Charlotte Mason wrote about it:
Temperance avoids every Excess. — Of the three rules of life by which our bodies should be ordered, perhaps temperance is least understood by young people. We think of Burne-Jones’s stately figure of Temperantia pouring pure water out of her pitcher to quench the flames, of temperance societies, and so on; and thus we come to associate temperance with abstinence from drink. That certainly is one kind of temperance; but the boy who is greedy, the girl who is slothful, are also intemperate, as you may tell by watching them walk down the street. They have not the springing step, the alert look, which belong to Temperance. (Vol. 4, p. 192)
Book Gluttony is a giving in to the temptation to excess — it’s as excessive as the other examples Charlotte Mason gives:
One may even be intemperate in the matter of restlessness. We may carry games, cramming for an examination, novel-reading, bridge, any interest which absorbs us, to excess; and all excess is intemperance.
The peculiar thing about this case is the small size of the child. It’s easy to say to an older child, “Look — you really shouldn’t have had so many treats off the plate that there weren’t any left for other people in attendance. That was gluttony and intemperance and you must have more consideration for others and more self-control.” The older child may or may not fight you on this, but they will know where you’re coming from, what all the words mean, and be able to have a discussion about what to do in the future.
The early reader, however, may or may not understand what you mean. Just because the child is gifted doesn’t necessarily mean you can or should reason with him about this.
As an aside, I think I should mention here that not all book gluttons are gifted. This is part of my gifted series, yes, but that doesn’t mean that your wonderfully average twelve-year-old won’t be tempted to lounge around all day reading a novel. Book gluttony is vice whether you are 3 or 33, but the solution I’m recommending below works better, I think, for younger children. With older children, you might still use it, but you’re going to have to also do some counseling and coaching, and less direct controlling.
Cultivating Virtue without Over Controlling
With small children, a combination of habit training and scheduling should be sufficient to solve the immediate problem, and the occasional passing comment of, “Oh, we shouldn’t overdo that. That would be excessive, and excessive means ‘too much'” is probably enough counsel.
By “habit training” I mean, first and foremost, the habit of obedience. That’s going to come in handy during the first week when little Susie is upset with you for coming into direct conflict with her uncontrolled passion for reading.
More than this, you can use your amazing mommy scheduling skills to build a habit or rhythm for your child’s day that allows reading, but not reading to excess. Take out a sheet of paper and list all the things you’d like to see your child doing. I don’t just mean activities like play with watercolors and clay; I mean things like meals, hygiene, naps, reading aloud, and chores. Please don’t forget outside time! Charlotte Mason was clear that it was imperative for preschoolers to spend many hours outside on fine days.
Get a blank weekly calendar template and map out a day and week for your child that includes all these things. Don’t designate “time for reading.” Instead, designate free time and in that free time the child must be truly free — if he wants to spend all of it reading, he may. You will have to decide how long is long enough when it comes to the amount of free time (and, by the way, you might want to break it up rather than giving it all at once).
Prevention is Superior to Cure
I had one child become a Book Glutton because I was on bed rest during a pregnancy. It was easier to let him read than to figure out what else to do. During that time, he forgot how to go outside and play! It was extremely difficult to retrain him to a more balanced life, so my advice to you is to avoid this situation if at all possible!
By training the young child to a habit of temperance — a daily or weekly schedule in which different activities have their place, and no one activity is allowed to, on a normal day, crowd out all the others — in which duty takes its place rather than self-indulgence — we actually provide the child with a virtuous norm to which we can appeal when she is older elementary or a teen and needs to be restrained and directed by her own Will rather than by Moms’ schedule.
In the case of my little Book Glutton, a definite schedule was precisely the tool I used to break his bad habit of intemperate reading. We gradually worked up to more outside time — it seemed compassionate to not throw him into the deep end of many hours per day. As he gained a wider variety of interests, I was able to back off and give him more free time. These days, I can trust him to give a wise consideration to his schedule, and guard himself the temptation to excess.
When my next early reader came along, I was prepared. I firmly believe we were able to avoid Book Gluttony with her by starting her off with a schedule that required more variety and less specialization. There were no battles over books, and that was quite a relief. This is why I say that prevention is superior to cure! It’s way easier.
Guarding Against Excess
This is a thing, and it’s not just a thing for our kids; it’s a thing for us. Our culture encourages excess in both good and bad things; I’ve even seen people be excessive in their minimalism, which is, perhaps, the height of irony.
Charlotte Mason has quite a bit to say about it, but I think most interesting is the principle she says underlies the virtue of Temperance:
Conscience is not, in fact, so much concerned with the manner of our intemperance as with the underlying principle which St. Paul sets forth when he condemns those who “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator.” (Vol. 2, p. 18)
That is, ultimately, what we need to guard ourselves and our children against: prioritizing our own passions and desires over all else. This is the heart of excess, and the real reason why all forms of gluttony are vice. At the end of the day, the call to the mother of a book glutton is the same call we mothers hear all the day long: let the little ones come to Me. Like law in the quote above, this mostly means we stay out of the way, but we can and must offer a hindrance in the places where excess would injure.
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