Lately I’ve been reading Nurture Shock, and if you haven’t already picked up a copy you’re missing out! It’s a fascinating look into recent themes in child development research. It’s also one of those books that you have to put down every other page to discuss with whoever happens to be in the room with you (my dear husband can attest to this).
Each chapter covers a different topic, but the one most relevant to our discussion here is the one on – of all things – sibling relationships. This particular chapter highlighted researchers in Illinois who were surprised to find that when brothers and sisters were read a number of children’s books about sibling conflict resolution there was a significant increase in sibling arguments.
They weren’t sure what to make of their findings because the books read to the kids were ones that technically had the right message. In fact, they were chosen precisely because they demonstrated how to resolve conflicts between brothers and sisters. But when the experiment had the opposite effect in real life, researchers went back and analyzed the books more carefully. They found that “while the books… always ended on a happy note, the first half of the stories portrayed in vivid detail ways that children can fight, insult, and devalue their siblings… Despite all but one being overtly crafted to have a happy ending, along the way kids were constantly taunting each other, belittling a sib, and blaming others for their wrongdoing.” Basically, instead of learning how to resolve their conflicts, the kids were learning new ways to be mean to each other!
So what does all of this have to do with theological children’s books?
As far as I can tell, if books about sibling relationships affect real life sibling relationships in ways that are significant and sometimes surprising, books about God probably affect real life relationships with God in similar ways. And, it the research cited in Nurture Shock is right, it’s not just the final message of the book that matters.
If the ends don’t justify the means, it’s not enough to give our kids any old book about Jesus. We need to be thinking carefully what messages our kids are hearing when we read them books about God that are sloppily written, poorly illustrated, or theologically over-simplified. We need to be asking ourselves what those kind of books communicate to their readers, because they are surely communicating something.
Sarah and I are committed to the mission of this blog precisely because we believe that it matters what kind of theological books line our children’s bookshelves. It matters if they’re well written. It matters if they’re beautifully illustrated. It matters if their theology is grounded in Scripture. And the subtexts and undercurrents matter, too. Why? Because our children’s reading life is vitally connected to their everyday relationships. The books that our sons and daughters read have very real consequences – and not in abstract, theoretical ways. Books affect how they think and relate to family members, friends, neighbors, and God. Let’s give them the very best we can find.