How to Help Your Child Read with Discernment

“Mom, I’m out of books to read again.”

“Really? Didn’t I just give you a few the other day?”

My son is a voracious reader. He gets it from me. As a child I often stayed up late into the night just to read one more chapter. I am grateful that he loves to read, but too often I can’t keep up with his appetite.

When my children are physically hungry, I sometimes give them whatever I can find just to boost their blood sugar and to stop the whining. But when it comes to my son’s appetite for books, I cannot just give him anything to read. Prepackaged food and a good homemade meal will equally fill the belly, but the latter is better for the body. When it comes to feeding my son’s desire to read, I want to give him what is healthy for his mind, heart, and soul.

Selecting good books for our kids to read is important to their growth in faith as well as in their literacy, knowledge, and emotional life. Teaching them how to do it themselves is even better.

I once did an object lesson to help my children understand how they need to process what they learn, whether  from books, television, online, friends, or in school. Using a mesh strainer placed over a bowl, I had them pour canned tomatoes into the strainer. I told them that the strainer represents the Word of God, and the canned food is what they have learned. They have to filter everything they learn through God’s Word. Whatever remained in the strainer was true, and whatever settled in the bowl beneath was false. The books our children read need to be evaluated through our biblical worldview.

So how do we as parents determine what is a good book for our children to read?

Worldview: What is the author’s worldview? Is it contrary to the Bible? Are there common grace insights in the book that can be pulled out? Even if it is not written from a biblical worldview, the book may still include many biblical truths. If you are uncertain, consider reading it first or reading it alongside your children and discussing it with them. In his book Lit!, Tony Reinke says this about reading books not written from a Christian worldview:

Scripture provides us with the only cohesive and consistent worldview. Scripture equips us to evaluate what we read in books, and helps us better perceive truth wherever it appears. Christians can read a broad array of books for our personal benefit, but only if we read with discernment. And we will only read with discernment if the biblical convictions are firmly settled in our minds and hearts. Once they are, we have a touchstone to determine what is pure gold and what is worthless.

When our children are first reading, and as they mature, they need the Word of God implanted in their hearts. If they have read and memorized Scripture, they will be better able to filter truth from lies.

Character: What kind of character traits does the book highlight and promote? For example, if one of the characters in a book tells a lie, is there a consequence, or is the lie excused or even encouraged? This problem wouldn’t necessarily rule out a book, but it is a factor to consider. How are issues of morality handled? Does it glorify sin in some way?

I faced this issue recently in my own book selections for my son. Because he loves mysteries I thought he might enjoy reading the classic Sherlock Holmes. Having never read it myself, I didn’t know much about it. But after he read the first few pages and asked me questions about the character’s behavior (“Mommy, what is cocaine?”), I realized that it was not appropriate for him, mostly because he is 8 years old and too immature to filter the content on his own.

Another example comes from the classic Hardy Boys books. Both the narrator and also the main characters make fun of an overweight friend in every book. In fact, each time the friend is mentioned in the books, he is described using just about every known adjective to describe his weight. This is something I point out to my son, and we talk about what the author’s intent might be as well as how God wants us to encourage our friends, not put them down.

Literature: Is it good literature? Does it use words that help your child learn new vocabulary, or are they banal, everyday words? Much of what is written today is written to sell, not necessarily because it is good literature. Even for early readers, there is a difference between Dr. Seuss books and books based on popular cartoon characters. Good books enrich children’s vocabulary, enlighten their imagination, increase their knowledge, and encourage their desire to read.

Read Together: For any book you don’t know if you can fully trust, read it together as a family. This way you can stop and discuss any questions or concerns. Reading together is also beneficial in developing your relationship as a family, enjoying time together, and nurturing your child’s growth in faith. Tony Reinke says this about reading together:

Reading literature together allows parents to read about sin and evil and goodness and beauty—and to pause and help the child interpret those realities in light of Scripture. In this way books (even non-Christian fiction) provide parents with a way to train and prepare our children to confront real-life situations, sinful attitudes, and worldly thinking. Ultimately we can use books to show our children where a biblical worldview and real life connect or clash.

Helping your child learn how to read with discernment is one of the best gifts a parent can give. Giving them a solid biblical foundation and worldview is the key. Rather than feed your children books to keep them busy, choose books that nourish their heart and soul. And, as C. S. Lewis once said, “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

  • Curt Day

    This worldview concern can easily become a way to develop a closed mind. First, who defines what a Christian worldview is? Some of the most closed minded people I know are those who only expose themselves and their families to “Christian” world views. In addition, there is much to learn in reading and understanding world views that have been little influenced by common grace. Ignorance of those world views lends credence to the perception of some that we are ignorant and afraid of the outside world.

    • Rachael Starke

      I would approach the worldview issue from the perspective of argument. What is the author arguing for and against? Which characters does s/he make sympathetic or unsympathetic. Then, and most importantly, will the author’s strategy compel your particular child towards it, or away from it. This will very much be a function of of each child’s strengths and weaknesses. I have one daughter who has a very strong conscience, and a strong ability to “distance” herself from a character’s behavior. I have another who is the opposite – she is easily drawn in by anti-Biblical arguments. She is the one I keep a much stronger watch over.

      I agree that it’s critical we teach our children to examine multiple worldviews with a critical, Biblically-centered eye. We just need to work carefully to ensure they’ve been equipped to do so at a distance, rather than be drawn in to them. It’s a tricky balance.

      • Curt Day

        I understand the sentiment. My only caution is that we don’t teach a Christian worldview that can be easily discredited. Losing someone to disillusionment can be a powerful loss.

    • John Botkin

      I think age is a big factor here. Yes, I am going to work at building a worldview for my young children and trying hard to shelter them from others. When they’re older, they will then have a solid foundation from which to engage other worldviews. So, for me it’s not a matter of never exposing them to something else. It’s making sure they have some level of maturity and the skills to discern truth from error before they engage them.

  • David Linton

    I still like to use the concept of worldview but I think there is a much better way of describing what Ms. Fox is discussing here and is still consistent with her ideas. It is a liturgy of life that causes a child to “Desire the Kingdom.”

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  • Chad Davis

    Mrs. Fox,

    In light of your thoughts, would you have any recommendations regarding good books for children to read? Or for good places to get recommendations about good books for children?

    If so, I would greatly appreciate hearing them, because we – like you – have some voracious young readers in the house!

    • Mark@DR

      Chad, here are three excellent books that provide such recommendations:

      “Honey for a Child’s Heart” (4th ed) by the late Gladys Hunt.

      “Books Children Love: a Guide to the Best Children’s Literature” (Rev ed) by Elizabeth Wilson.

      “The Book Tree: a Christian Reference for Children’s Literature” (2nd ed) by Elizabeth McCallum & Jane Scott.

      These references guides will keep your children in good books well into their teen years.

  • David

    The problem with this approach is that it would seem to prohibit children from reading the Bible itself! Read through some of the stories in the book of Judges or some of the other books of the Old Testament. These are stories that are violent, pornographic, and full of wicked behavior (often rewarded from a worldly perspective), polygamy, bigamy, and other sexual content. Because the Bible is not, first and foremost, a “rule book” of moral behavior. To the contrary, it depicts people at their worst. I’m not sure how Ms. Fox can reconcile her understandably admirable desire to provide literature that portrays good characters and role models with the reading of these stories in the word of God itself.

    • John Botkin

      I imagine she might respond by saying the Bible portrays all of these immoral acts and people in the context of a God-given worldview. In other words, the bad is shown to be bad and the good is shown to be good. Contrary to there being a conflict between what she wrote and kids reading the Bible, it becomes a perfect example. And though earthly, I’m not sure I would classify anything in the Bible as “pornographic.” Grace.

      • David

        I disagree that Ms. Fox is saying that so long as “bad is shown to be bad and good is shown to be good” that a book would be okay for her children. Take her example of Sherlock Holmes. Take her example of Sherlock Holmes. For the most part, Holmes is a traditional hero who fights injustice and does the right thing. But she still would not let her son read the book because the cocaine use isn’t age appropriate. In her words, “mostly because he is 8 years old and too immature to filter the content on his own.”

        Given Ms. Fox’s aversion to exposing her children to cocaine use, I dought she would be okay with exposing her 8 year old son to novels or stories containing graphic violence and sex, even if in the end “good is shown to be good and bad is shown to be bad.”

      • David

        Also, some of the morality lessons from the Old Testament take a certain degree of maturity to fully understand. Try to explain to an 8 year old that an angry mob demanded the release of two men from a house “so that we can have sex with them,” and instead the owner of the home pleaded that the angry mob should instead take his two virgin daughters “and you can do what you like with them.” (Genesis 19.) Genesis 19 a story that ultimately, as you rightly point out, portrays these immoral acts in the context of a God-given worldview. As a result, you believe this is a story that is totally appropriate to present to an 8 year old. I disagree and I think Ms. Fox almost certainly would disagree as well.

  • Corine Hyman

    Such valuable information, will be sharing with my facebook page

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  • Jeremy

    This is a timely article for me. I’m reading the Harry Potter series with my son. It’s a big time commitment, but there are so many great conversation starters in those books.

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  • Lisa Tarplee

    Love this! Great pointers in helping to filter what our kids put into their minds. I would also be interested in books that you have found good reads for children.

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