As Banned Books Week Ends, Befriend Them To Raise Empathetic Kids Who Read!

If as parents, we want to raise children who read, we need to let them read what they want to read, not force them to read what we want them to read.

My children were babies when the last of the Harry Potter books came out, and though we loved watching the first three movies, I was very clear that my children wouldn’t be allowed to read beyond book 4 till they were old enough to handle the adolescent angst. 12 was the arbitrary age I’d set, before which they would not be allowed to read Order of the Phoenix.

When the older one devoured the first three books before his 8th birthday, I realised that short of implementing a blanket ban, there was little chance of me being able to keep him away from finishing the series in a couple of weeks.

So was I ‘banning’ the books?

I was also extremely conflicted. The Liberal in me detested censorship of any kind- if I didn’t want people telling me which books to read and which movies to watch, could I really stop my child from reading something that gave him pleasure? While I wrestled with my conscience, my child finished the series, and I consoled myself with the thought that while he had read something I deeded age in appropriate, I had at least remained true to my principles of not banning the written word.

Two years later, history repeated itself. The younger one, too, galloped through the Harry Potter books long before the age when I thought he should be reading them.

While the deed was done, I continued to worry. And the more I thought about it, the more I was conflicted.

Restricting reading to age-appropriate books was different from banning a book, and as a parent didn’t I have the right and the duty to ensure my children read according to their age? The later books in the Harry Potter series dealt with complex emotions of death, sexual attraction, romantic jealousy.

Had I failed as a parent by allowing my children to explore those themes long before they were ready for them? Should I have controlled their reading a bit more? Surely there was a difference between a parent telling her child “not yet”, and the State telling all people “never”?

We take what we understand, from what we read

July Blume’s essay on accelerated reading consoled me slightly. Her theory was that children read over what they are not yet ready to understand. So I might read the book and feel the full weight of Hermione’s frustration when Ron refuses to recognise her feelings for him, but my eight year old will probably just skim over that part and only remember the flock of birds that Hermione conjured up, in her frustration up to attack Ron.

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There were other things which they read and remembered, but which they fully understood only a bit later.

When an uncle that the children were quite fond of passed away in a climbing accident, we debated whether or not to break the news to them. I decided to, because tragic though it was, death is a part of life, and I could not keep them insulated from it forever. Strangely, they took it well. “Don’t feel so bad”, they told me, ”death is the start of a new adventure, isn’t it?” They even quoted Dumbledore back to me- “Don’t pity the dead. Instead pity the living. And above all pity those who live without love.”

My children had taken enough out of the books to be able to recall them in a different context.

Books are banned because they make adults uncomfortable

If you look at the list of books that have been banned from various school libraries, many of them deal with themes like puberty, sexuality, sexual ambiguity, masturbation and teen pregnancies.

All these are issues that children and adolescents confront in their daily lives. When Nico confesses his love for Percy Jackson, it will not create homosexual tendencies in boys, but it will reassure an adolescent struggling with his homosexuality that he is not alone.

Gender Queer which is the memoir of a non-binary, asexual young person coming to terms with sexual and gender identity topped the list of books that have been targeted this year. Many people fear the book, because it challenges the conventional cis-het gender orthodoxy. Yet, it is an important resources for trans, queer and non-binary young people who are struggling with their identity and may not have an adult role model in their life. Books like these, far from being banned, should be made accessible to young people who may need them to better understand themselves or their friends.

To raise children who read, and think for themselves

If as parents, we want to raise children who read, we need to let them read what they want to read, not force them to read what we want them to read. Children have more than enough books to read as a part of their curriculum- if you give them yet another book on Planet Earth or a story that ‘improves’ them, they are almost certain to reject it. Instead, let them choose their own books.

As parents, we may not approve of Captain Underpants, but the books will make the children chuckle, and what they will take away from it is a healthy appreciation for word play. The myth is that comic books stunt the reading capacity of children, but comic books also teach children to appreciate the use of space and to articulate themselves with fewer words. We may find the Wimpy Kid series repetitive, but as long as our children enjoy reading and re-reading them, should we stop them?

All books, as Neil Gaiman says, build empathy because the act of reading forces you to build on the words of the author to create your own world. The characters in a book are as much your creation as they are that of the author, and through them you learn to look at situations from the perspective of other people. Yes, certain authors are boring and certain books are repetitive, but why not let the children decide for themselves instead of forcing our decision on them?

Reading broadens our minds. Reading teaches us to look at things from other perspectives. Reading empowers us to ask questions. Reading enables us to challenge the status quo.

People who are comfortable with the status quo feel threatened by readers, which is why they try to get books banned. Seek out the banned books. Understand why they have been banned. And leave them hanging around where your children can read them.

The ability to read books, all kinds of books, is the biggest gift we can give our children. Let’s do it for them.

Image source: Jose Girarte from Getty Images Signature Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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