We live in an age that encourages hyper-vigilance about some dangers, but ignores others. In a video still making the rounds on Facebook, social media personality Joey Salads explains that after seeing youngsters purchase ice cream “with no adult supervision,” he decided to find out how easy it would be to abduct them. The camera rolls while he invites kids into his ice cream truck.
Viewers are clearly expected to wonder what their own children would do. Real-life stranger abductions are much less common than this video implies, but the truth is that all of our kids will face adults who hope to capture their minds and imaginations.
An experiment from a few years ago observed that when individuals were asked to answer questions in company with actors secretly coached to give wrong answers, individuals’ perceptions of what they saw seemed to be changed by the group’s response. We humans are social creatures. That is why it is so frightening to live in a time in which activists aggressively try to reconstruct reality around our ears. Society’s newest dogmas are marketed aggressively to our children. If the people around them are busy praising free ice cream, will our kids still have the guts to walk away from an ideological kidnapper’s truck?
Stories Shape Our Kids’ Model of the World
Unless they are taught to analyze the tales in novels, movies, the media, and history class, our kids will be vulnerable to the ideology of skilled storytellers. Take a picture book released this year: J. J. Austrian’s “Worm Loves Worm”: “When a worm meets a special worm and they fall in love, you know what happens next: They get married! But their friends want to know—who will wear the dress? And who will wear the tux?” The message, of course, is that love matters but biological sex doesn’t. Many other stories transmit postmodern morality much more subtly.
We are fools if we merely protest the tales that cater to today’s hottest controversies. The real problem is the type of stories that nurture what made those controversies possible in the first place. Almost every children’s movie preaches the message that each person can find truth in her own heart. Nearly every young adult novel teaches that the chief purpose in life is to seek one’s own happiness. Most popular songs claim that love is a synonym for fun without self-sacrifice. After an education like this, why would a child understand your objection to polyandry, serial philandering, or no-fault divorce?
We could, of course, gather up our children and move to Antarctica. Salads implies the way to protect our children is never to let them out of our sight. Yet our job is to prepare our kids to face the world without our supervision. Stories may be one of the ways through which social activists attempt to hijack our kids’ beliefs, but they are also an excellent arena in which to teach discernment. We can nurture an emotional and imaginative grasp of truth through the right stories while also using questionable stories to expose our kids to hostile ideas at a controlled pace, modeling an intelligent response all the while. How are we to do this?
1. Get Controlling (in the Short-Term)
Initially, we must protect our kids. We try to control their exposure to darkness not to create an artificially halcyon childhood, but because learning about some things too early is genuinely damaging. A child is still composing his basic mental model of what life means. If, for instance, he reads or watches fictional rape scenes before he has a basic idea of what sex is supposed to be, it may warp his model.
As kids get older, the real question is not so much which topics are included, but how those topics are handled and what kinds of attitudes the story encourages. I wouldn’t mind my young teen reading a book that mentioned adultery, but I would avoid a book that glorified adultery under the banner of all-conquering love. I wouldn’t object to my middle schooler reading a book about the Holocaust, but I would object to a book that mocked the sincerity of characters who believe in objective good and evil. I don’t want my kids fed on a diet of stories in which the chief role of siblings is to annoy one another, or in which parents are always out-of-touch and irrelevant. Stripping families of their ability to depend on one another is a ploy of statism. Let’s not accept that lie.
Families whose kids are in public school have less power over book selection. In that case, it is especially important to counter the normalization of what is harmful by giving kids a broader perspective (for more on this, see number four, below).
2. Model Walking Away from a Story
When my sisters and I were young, our dad would explain why he thought certain titles were too new-agey, dumb, or disrespectful. He modeled constant evaluation of books and conveyed the idea that some weren’t worth our time. In fact, sometimes he made up new stories to go with the pictures. We didn’t always catch on until mom read us the same book later and we heard a whole different story.
As we help our children learn to consider the merits of books, it’s important to teach them not only to recognize erroneous beliefs, but also poor quality. A sense of boredom with stupid stories will protect our kids from a whole lot of propaganda. It also shifts the focus—we don’t react against immoral books from a position of fear, but because, quite frankly, they aren’t very good and are not worth space in our brains and hearts. We skip bad books because we love good ones.
3. Teach Them to Look for the Man Behind the Curtain
The world is full of characters whose unethical, immoral, or self-destructive choices can be justified within the context of their story. It is easy for our kids to say, “Well, yeah, he lied to his loving parents, but that was okay because of X,” or, “Sure, she killed someone innocent, but she had to because of Y,” without ever realizing that the storyteller deliberately and carefully constructed the entire scenario in order to make the character’s choices palatable. We can ask our children about the different choices the author could have made, and what they think the author is trying to teach them.
This can be done as part of positive conversations about great stories. When we and our kids have an emotional reaction to a story, we can discuss ways in which the storyteller affected our feelings. We can note the power of a good writer or filmmaker to stir up sympathy, empathy, fear, or anger. We can talk about the way the soundtrack makes a chase scene exciting or a comic moment funnier. We can observe that it’s easy to feel bad for the ill-behaved action hero because of his tragic background, and ask our kids if they think the scriptwriter did that on purpose. Making our children more aware of the techniques of storytellers makes it easier to appreciate great storytelling while also resisting the manipulation of someone with an ideological axe to grind.
4. Teach Them to Understand the People We Disagree With
One of the things my parents taught me was a basic understanding of various worldviews. As a teenaged reader, I knew what Marxists believed and why. I knew the foundational assumptions of secularism and postmodernism and understood how they compared and contrasted with a Judeo-Christian worldview.
The introductory material in Gene Veith’s “Reading Between the Lines” was helpful in discussing the way worldviews intersect with fiction. My parents assigned me a lot of C.S. Lewis and David Noebel’s “Understanding the Times,” but I also learned from reading stories that demonstrated the fruits of different worldviews. For instance, stories about Soviet-era Russia were an eye-opener about the beliefs that led to gulags and secret police. Even young kids can read about Ivan. This kind of knowledge armed me against stories that had been structured to make an emotional case for Marxism, secularism, or postmodernism.
In addition to consciously teaching our children about hostile beliefs and why we think those beliefs are wrong, it is important to ground the conversation in history. It is easier to hold fast against popular sentiments if one realizes how transient those opinions are in the stream of history.
This means, of course, that our kids need to read books written during different time periods. This is especially crucial as a counterbalance for kids who are frequently assigned heavily progressive materials in school. Of course, old books make little sense to readers whose frame of reference is entirely modern, so don’t just pull out “A Tale of Two Cities” when your child is in high school. Start off with a mix of old and new from the very beginning.
5. Recognize the Young Person’s Need to Learn About Danger
Kids know their parents are flawed and the world isn’t always safe. Young children need a way to process these very realistic feelings and fears. Andrew Kern argues (listen here, four minutes in) that when we invert fairy tales and present kids with friendly ogres or misunderstood wolves, we rob them of the metaphors they need to understand both the moral realm and the world outside their home.
Traditional fairy tales not only acknowledge the reality of darkness, but also present models of characters who overcome it. Unlike inverted fairy tales, the old versions also assure children that the world includes fairy godmothers, faithful animals, and axe-wielding woodcutters—that is, help in the face of evil.
The need for gritty stories manifests differently as kids grow. As teen, I wanted to read about protagonists who courageously endured beatings, starvation, gunfights, major wars, human tragedies, and sometimes even death. “The Hiding Place” was an early favorite. Reading about suffering and bravery helped me feel that I was preparing for “the real world.”
Today’s literature for young people meets this developmental desire with material that is dark indeed. Graphic accounts of rape, incest, suicide, or the like are included on the grounds that to do so is authentic. Yet these recent stories do more than portray life’s tragedies. They also send the message that any external source of hope—whether religion, community, God, or love—is an illusion.
In Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” the titular devil explains humans have been taught to believe that “in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘Real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.” The one-dimensional “realism” of dark YA lit isn’t actually realistic. We need our kids to know that love, truth, self-sacrifice, courage, and joy are just as real as the worst behaviors of humanity. One way to help arm them against books that preach lonely despair is by providing them with better models. Incidentally, that is yet another reason to also avoid sappy, sentimental, moralistic books that unwisely present what is good in a false light.
We Must Give Our Kids a Steady Diet of the Right Stories
We don’t want to rear kids like Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who failed to recognize a dragon’s cave when he saw one because he had read only the wrong sort of books. The right stories—whether history, literature, or entertainment—allow a child to learn from the experience of broader humanity. The right stories will nurture a recognition of truth in all its beauty.
We parents are tasked with the responsibility of teaching our children to sort through what they read. It is, therefore, our job to train our own tastes. We can begin by reading great literature. Works like those of Shakespeare, Homer, Jane Austen, the King James Bible, and nursery rhymes and fables will help us learn what enduring stories are like. We can relish classic children’s stories together with our kids. As we grow in our own literary appreciation, it will become easier to see which modern stories are more worthwhile than others.
Our job is to prepare children who are capable of freedom. As they learn to be discerning readers, they will grow in knowledge of humanity, of themselves, and of truth. They will grow in wisdom. Someday they will be fully capable of turning down free ice cream because they know what a truly good treat—or story—should taste like.