From Theory to Reality

Reading and Relationships
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?

A lot.

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.

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7 thoughts on “From Theory to Reality

  1. I totally agree with this post! Not only the sibling rivalry books, but I also refuse to read the books (often from our badly stocked library–and in Oxford of all places!) that highlight children who are disrespectful to their parents, won’t go to bed (seemingly a major theme in English children’s books), and won’t eat their vegetables. Also books that show children negotiating and managing their parents, and parents bribing and flattering children into good behavior. I believe these books are equally–if not more–harmful. That isn’t the way the parent-child relationship and parental authority structure ought to function, so I won’t create the impression in my children’s minds that it is.

    Thank you for this, Haley!

    • How ironic that a library in Oxford would be poorly stocked! I sometimes struggle to find the balance of not wanting to normalize certain kinds of behavior but also not wanting to create some kind of indealistic/unrealistic bubble for my children. As Sarah said in her comment just below, the goal is to offer our kids books that don’t ignore sin – because if we do that we won’t be able to offer them books that show the power and beauty of redemption. Of course, there are lots of books that portray sin without any sort of redemption. That can be reflective of reality in its own way, if it is done well, but ideally we’re looking for the sin/redemption combo. Agree? Disagree?

  2. I started Nurture Shock about a year ago, and now I need to finish it! I think your post makes tons of sense – especially since books aren’t primarily a means of communicating information. They’re more about shaping imagination in all kinds of subtle ways.

    That said – and I don’t think you’re advocating this, Haley! – I know I can get kind of perfectionist on this score, as if I can somehow engineer my kids’ imaginations by choosing the right books. You know: like my kids will never fight if I don’t read them a sibling rivalry book 🙂

    Reality is complicated. God is sovereign over it all. We often don’t understand his ways. I want books that will not just shape my kids’ imaginations, but that will also expand them, so they’re not surprised by the wideness of God’s mercy or the depth of our sin. When I start looking for books that refuse to simplify reality, I run into some that show things I don’t want my kids imitating. But really good books (The Story of Ruby Bridges, The Christmas Troll, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever are a few that we’ve reviewed and come to mind; Dante’s Inferno is the classic grownup example) show sin in its true light – a destructive aberration that can be transformed by grace.

    I guess the point isn’t what behavior does a book show, but how is it depicted for a child’s imagination? My daughter recently listened to a book at kindergarten about anger being a “red beast” that lives inside and can wake up. The point of the book was that you can put your red beast to sleep, but she walked away with a newfound permission to be angry – because it normalized anger!

    We have since had several long talks about how she is stronger than the red beast — and when she isn’t, God’s Spirit is. So a problematic book, by my measure, but an opening for conversation. Just like those sibling rivalry books probably make fights between kids seem normal and expected, then add coping tips. My goal is to offer books that don’t ignore sin or only depict ideal behavior — but to offer books that depict it, and the depth of God’s grace in response to our stubborn rejection, truthfully.

    • I think you’re absolutely right: we want books that are, essentially, truthful about ourselves and about God. We’re probably pushing the Nurture Shock message too far if we insist on only presenting shining literary examples of behavioral perfection to our kids. Rather, we want to be reading books that accurately show (1) human nature for what it is and (2) the redemptive power we find in Christ.

  3. Thank you – this is really helpful – in terms of both theological and practical messages kids are getting in books. I’ve been struggling lately with whether certain books are okay and this gives me more confidence to be increasingly selective.

    • Hi Sarah! Fun to “see” you here. The issue of just how selective to be is really tricky. On the one hand, obviously I’m all about presenting the cream of the crop to our kids. But practically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to keep ALL of the less-than-perfect books away. I try to keep in mind that if we have 80-90% good stuff, it’s probably not worth obsessing about the rest.

  4. Pingback: The Atmosphere of Books | Aslan's Library

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