Reading Shapes a Child's Character

by Joy Marie Dunlap
       "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Phil. 4:8).
       Philippians 4:8 is an important verse to consider as you choose reading material for your children. This not only includes the books you choose to use as "literature," but also books your children read for fun. All of our children's reading material affects them morally, including the primers we use to teach them to read, the examples in their grammar exercises, and the material we use for spelling, dictation, and reading comprehension exercises.
       Young children do not segment the world into categories like, "This is reading material for my edification and this other is just stuff for learning how to read and for practicing reading skills." They do not think, "This is about morals, values, and right and wrong," and "This is just reading material which has nothing to do with morals." Everything they read helps set their direction in life. Everything they see, hear, read, and experience is about values and morals and right and wrong.
       I think that perspective is valid. Just as you cannot laugh at an off-color joke without being affected by it, a child cannot read about unchecked sinful behavior or suggestions without being affected adversely, even if it is "only" a reading lesson.
       The written word is like a seed sown in fertile soil. When our children read about foolish behavior, folly is the result in their lives. When our children read about cute little animals or cartoon characters doing things that our children shouldn't do, they are affected adversely by what they have just read.
       When our children read about children deceiving their parents, sneaking and doing things behind their backs without their permission, taunting a sibling, complaining about their chores, and indulging in similar temptations without consequences following, don't be surprised when you see them following each bad example. I have seen it happen every single time I was not careful or let my standards slip a little for the sake of a "pretty good book in every other way."
       All of our children's reading material, including their readers and the books we allow them to read to practice their reading skills, should be carefully selected for reading content as well as for the teaching purpose we are planning to use them for in our children's education.
       Sticky notes can temporarily cover anything you don't want your children to see or read in a library book (if you know you can trust them not to look), and stickers and colored sticky shelf paper can be used in books you own. I do this when the problems I encounter are small exceptions in an otherwise excellent book. But resist the temptation to become careless about your children's reading material because of time pressure or other people's arguments that eventually they will see it all anyway.
       A tender conscience is too precious a thing to trample and sear in a child's tender years. Once seared, the conscience is never quite the same again. It is true that one day our children will be old enough to make their own moral decisions in life. It is also true that God holds us accountable for the influences we allow in our children's lives while they are still in our care.
       The Bible says that if we are truly diligent to train up our children in the way they should go, when they are grown they will not depart from that same moral value system in which we trained them. God knows that childhood is the time when we develop our moral sense and values in life. Allowing bad influences in a child's life gives him a taste for that kind of influence, so that in adulthood he will not only encounter those kinds of influences, he will seek them out just as surely as a moth is drawn to a candle flame.
       Childhood is also the time when a person develops the most firmly rooted and lasting life habits, based on childhood influences. It is then that he develops the value of industry or slothfulness, meanness or kindness, self-centeredness or benevolence, thankfulness or bitterness, pride or humility. These values can be trained through our example and the standards we hold for our children, but the influences our children are exposed to affect them just as much.
       When a child's reading material is all about figuring out how to be the most popular, jealousy, dating and breaking up, getting even, resenting parents or a sibling, and the sole pleasure of Number One, guess what your child will be thinking about when the book is put down.
       If, on the other hand, your child's reading material is about families that love one another, these values will be the ones which take root in your child's heart. The wise thing to do is to choose literature which portrays people, and especially families, as hard-working, helping one another with life's load, being honest with one another, and working toward constructive life goals (as opposed to jealousy, constant strife, self-indulgence, greed, pride, and revenge).
       Look at Galatians 5:19-21 and you will see a list of traits that are opposite to those of a person whose life is led by the Holy Spirit, including "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these."
       A story, to be realistic, is bound to include some aspect of evil and the life of the flesh. However, to be suitable reading for our children, these things should never be a repeated theme, an accepted thing, a consistent trait of the main character or of a character who is upheld in the story as exemplary or as a hero. If a story treats these kinds of things casually or acceptingly, this is not acceptable reading material for children in a Christian family.
       Instances of the above should be commented on in the story as improper and damaging behavior. They should either be shown to be traits of a person who is understood in the story to have bad character, or they should be traits which a main character is struggling against with some degree of victory as the story progresses, and which the main character or hero is truly ashamed of and resolves not to repeat.
Bad character should be shown in the story to have damaging and regrettable results. I do not like a story with a judgmental tone that shows no understanding for the hardships people face and their struggles against sin. But I also reject a story which portrays sin as something there need be no struggle against, or which we should learn to live with comfortably as an acceptable part of our life experience.
       As parents, I believe we are responsible for the picture we give our children through the influences we allow and of what kinds of attitudes, actions, character, and responses are right and good. Our children want to know what to emulate, since they are naturally mimics. Our world today is sorely lacking in positive examples of a useful, constructive, loving, upright life. Our children's reading material is their example, at least in part, whether or not we care to admit it. It is so important that we be faithful in choosing material for our children which gives them exemplary role models to copy in both actions and attitudes.
       I recently informed our 8-year-old daughter that I am going to be training her in some new kitchen responsibilities like washing the fronts of the cupboards, wiping down the counters, and drying the dishes (to be added to her current chores). Her response? She was so excited she wrapped her arms around me and thanked me several times, laughing, a merry sparkle in her eyes. Why? The influence of some of her favorite reading material portrays the opportunity to help with household chores as a privilege and a source of pride, happiness, and fulfillment. What our children read really does make all the difference in their attitudes and their whole outlook on life.
       I want to inspire our children to be compassionate like Jesus by exposing them to literature about upright people whose lives are full of compassion in word, deed, and attitude. I want to inspire them to be courageous by exposing them to stories about selfless courage. I want to inplore them to be humble by giving them reading material about nonpretentious, humble people, people who know their own need for God—weak people, poor people, disabled people, disadvantaged people, people in discouraging situations who have lived by II Cor. 12:9, which says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness."
       I want our children to be inspired to overcome sin through reading material about people who, in spite of a difficult battle with sin, overcame it through God's power. I want to insprie our children's faith with stories of miracles and the providing, protecting hand of God coming through for His people in seemingly impossible situations.
       I want to inspire our children to have right responses in difficult situations with stories involving poeple who show the way. I want them to discover what courtesy means through reading material depicting kind and courteous people. And I want to inspire our children to live useful, loving, constructive lives through reading material showing what great good a useful, loving life can do in this world.
       You are not going to find a perfect role model. Every Bible character except for Jesus had one kind of sin or attitude problem or another at some point in his life. Even David, who was called in Scripture "a man after God's own heart."
       However, the Bible treats all sin as wrong and unacceptable. The Bible's stance toward sin is confrontational. We are not to be in the business of judging our neighbor lest we be judged. However, we are to know that God hates sin. Christ died to save the sinner, but He did not die to make sin an acceptable thing which we are to live comfortably with. He came to give us victory over sin. We need each other's encouragement, not judgment, in overcoming sin. But at the same time, we do not want to underestimate the damaging and destructive nature of sin in words, deeds, or attitudes. This is the understanding which should influence our decisions as we prayerfully decide what literature to allow and disallow for our children's reading material.
       It is hard, but not impossible, to find pure, wholesome, and exemplary reading material for children, younger and older. You may well have to work hard to find it in sufficient quantity, but are we afraid of a little work for the sake of our children's lifetime well-being?
       I consider looking for the right materials for our children to be an important part of home schooling, and as such, I do not mind spending a significant amount of time searching for and examining different schooling and constructive leisure materials for them. When I go to the library, I expect to work hard there, looking for the right books to teach our children without influencing them wrongly. When I get home, I expect to work hard at prereading those books before passing them on to our children to read. I consider the work involved in surrounding our children with excellent reading material to be as important as any other aspect of Christian child training.
       [Editor's Note: Everything in this article applies as much or more to all forms of electronic media—movies, videos, TV, music or story tapes or CDs, video games, and computer games or software.]

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