Children learn much of their world view through the stories they hear. This has always been the case. Audiences have been living vicariously through characters for centuries. We have taught our offspring how to avoid dangers and survive adventures safely by allowing them to live through experiences without actually participating in the danger. We create characters so we can do mental ride-alongs that ultimately help us find solutions in the real world. Our brain forms pathways based on this learning process just like it forms pathways from real world experience. Watching a character overcome adversity teaches our mind that adversity can be overcome. Reading a story where a group of people create a better existence by working together tells our brain that working together is a good thing to do.
There is a flip side to this. Books filled with struggle that never resolves hardwire brains to believe that struggle never ends and situations never improve. Characters that sink into hostility and bitterness because they were unable to overcome a problem grow hostility and bitterness in the mind of a young reader. Characters that see cling to their victim status like a badge of honor promote an unhealthy viewpoint that being a victim is noble. Negative begets negative.
I am not saying that all stories should have happy endings. Life doesn’t work that way. But neither does it always end badly. If you only feed young minds dystopian stories, how will our children ever learn to create anything but a dystopian world? It will be the only type of world they have ever been exposed to, so it will be the only one for which they have a blueprint.
It may sound like I am advocating extreme censorship or embracing the banning of books. This is not the case, especially as your child gets older. I believe it is important to know that not all stories are healthy. Not every character should have the job of leading by example. Sometimes the best lessons we learn are by seeing what not to do. As a parent, it is my job to help my child navigate the thoughts and feelings any experience gives to them. The occasional negative book filled with unresolved problems and tangled issues can be great food for thought. They can also be a wonderful discussion topic to help your child think of a way that the character could have done things differently in order to create a better ending. The key word is occasional.
I look at reading the same way I look at interacting with people. It’s said that the magic ratio for positive interactions to negative interactions in a marriage is 5:1. If a spouse requires that kind of ratio, a friend should as well. If you require this from people you love, it should also apply in general. Books are also interactions. If you apply this to your child’s reading list, how would it have to change? Look through their English curriculum. Read the stories. What kind of world are they teaching your children to build? If the answer has you horrified, welcome to my boat. Here’s an oar. Use it to beat back some of the worst influences. Then find better ones. Help your child learn to love them. Set aside some time to read together. If the book is out of their ability, read it to them. If not, have them read to you. It’s an excellent way to form positive lasting memories.
So, the next time you are combing through your child’s curriculum, remember to take a few minutes to look through their English book. Pick through the required reading list. Find out what worlds are being poured into that growing mind and make sure that most of them are worlds that you would not mind living in.