Some Thoughts on Protecting Our Children From Fanaticism

In view of world events in the last few days I have been thinking about how we, as parents, can protect our children from fanaticism, and from the dark and harmful voices. Unconditional love of course, and support, and kindness and the respect we show to them, the tenor of our whole lives. But also, I am thinking, reading aloud to them. This may seem a little trite and slightly mad, but here is my reasoning..

The Man and I try our very best to be good parents, and I think we are doing a good job on the whole, but we are also often harried and hurried and not paying close attention, and sometimes we just don't have the right words.  And there are so many other voices out there, competing with ours, saying things that aren't healthy or good. And that is where the reading comes in. I have always read aloud to the children, ever since they were babies. The oldest got age-appropriate books, the others just hung on while a wave of words washed over them, and picked up what they could. It might seem as though they are just listening to stories and being entertained, but so much more is happening. They are listening to the lovely words of Little House on the Prairie, Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Narnia, Charlotte's Web. But they are absorbing the values that make all those books classics - resilience, kindness, bravery, wonder, forgiveness. They are discovering that the small, the weak, the poor, the disregarded - all of these are important, and have worth. And they are hearing them, not from a soundtrack, or from the TV screen, but in the voice of a beloved, trusted parent. I am sometimes in awe when I am reading aloud - all of these amazing words, in my voice, makes me sound so much wiser than I am! What our children are hearing is us transmitting our deepest values, in words so much better than we can say them.

When the oldest two children were eleven and nine, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud to them (and the five year old... and the one year old..). It took over a year, and involved epic read-aloud sessions, tucked up in our bed, under the trees in the backyard, lying draped over the living room couches eating cake... and all that time we were in the grip of an epic saga by a master storyteller, but we were also hearing about the value of friendship and compassion, discovering the Plato-esque philosophy about the corrupting nature of power, realising that even such a creature as Gollum does not spring up ready-made, but is shaped by all the forces and circumstances of a cold, friendless world. And discovering that doing the right thing might, in the end, leave you a shattered shell of your former carefree self, but that that may well be the price we have to pay for the freedom and safety of all we love.

I like to think that in dark moments in life, when things may not be going so well for the children (horrible thought. Surely the gods will strew rose petals in the path of my children, of all the children in the world. How could they not?), that they will maybe remember some of my words, and feel that love that will always be there for them. But I know, that added to everything I can say and do, there will be a shining company in their heads, Rat and Mole and Badger, and Toad, of course, Laura, and Charlie, Frodo and Sam and Gandalf, Charlotte and Wilbur the pig, and all the hundreds of others that they have heard at bedtime for years and years of their childhoods, all whispering the good, and kind, and brave words that make them so memorable.

I hope that maybe this will help them steer a course through the bad times, but I know this. Any child whose childhood has been full of good books, will also 'know' hundreds of different characters. Children's books take their readers to every country and embrace every class and colour and creed of character. They are populated by the rich and poor, the deformed, the orphan, the unloved, the happy families, the brave, the noble and the very ordinary kid next door. I think there is very little chance that such a child could grow up and be seduced by a voice telling them that this or that group of people are unrelentingly evil and deserve to be wiped from the earth. The very strength of literature is that it shows us ourselves and our neighbours as unique and wonderfully different, yet really all the same in our hopes and dreams.

So tonight and every night I'll be hugging the children tight, and reading them another story..


Heather said…
I love this. There are so many wonderful models of good character, wise choices, heroism, hard decisions, and good triumphing over the bad in literature. A child who is immersed in story definitely has a good foundation for facing life, I think.

I still read aloud with my 12 year old son every day. I sometimes get some strange looks from people when I tell them this. They think he should be old enough to read by himself. We both enjoy this bonding time, however. We read his books for school, taking turns every couple of pages, and he can ask me questions if he needs to. Often our discussions that start with something related to the book will take a turn with us talking about the deeper issues of life.

Great post. While our children mean everything to us, they also mean everything to the future of this world.
GretchenJoanna said…
You are so right. And you are wise in yourself, to draw from all the wisdom of the ages and live vicariously with your children all the joy and suffering and life experiences in between that truly educate us, and teach us what it means to be human.

I read the Rings with my children, too - I never would have read those just to myself...and when the older children got too busy to be part of our family reading times they missed it. It is so heartening to know that many families still do this, and to think of the children who are growing up rich in the important things.

Yes Yes and Yes. Wholeheartedly agree. So happy my 8 year old loves reading. We are working through the 9 Little House on the Prairie books and have also started the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Great tales of resilience and character and good vs evil/choices we make etc
Amen to all of this. xx
Jo said…
Heather, what a great idea, reading the school texts with your son. I always discuss them, but hadn't thought of reading them with my 12yo. I'll get right on that.
GJ, I love the idea that I am a link in the chain of a long line of parents reading to their children. LOTR is such an epic read aloud. Writing this post made me realise it must be the turn of the younger two to hear it... deep breath..
Michele and Mrs Frantic, I love it that I'm preaching to the choir here!
Jen's Busy Days said…
I baulked at LOTR as a teenager but did go see the first Hobbit movie with ds14 who read it all, in the modern way on his tablet. The other boys are getting The Magician's Nephew at the moment. These old stories "told" in their own way are creating great discussions. You are inspiring me to build on this habit and do more! I think it is about time for a lighter read like The Famous Five as well.

Best wishes,
Jen in NSW
Judy said…
I never really thought about reading out loud in this way before. It is quite a revelation. I always used to read a lot to my kids to encourage them to enjoy books. Now the school expects the children to read to an adult every day and we have to sign their diary to say they have. It makes it such a chore! We did used to take turns reading one page each when they were still learning, because this would then keep the story alive and help them to understand what was going on, rather than just struggling with the reading the words. I had to read them all the Roald Dahl books and the Harry Potter saga, because they are just so much fun and the characters are wonderfully expressive. It is really great to think of all the additional benefits.
Jo said…
Jen, Posy and I are reading The Famous Five right now. And while my two youngest fight about everything on a very regular basis, I often find the 12yo reading out loud to the 8yo when I don't have time. To see the 12yo reading her collection of Famous Five novels to her little sister just makes my heart melt!(until they get right back to fighting again)
Judy, despite all the reading we do, I still find myself yelling to the 8yo to read to me while I'm making school lunches so I can sign off on the daily book!
I have no proof that reading wonderful books to children makes a difference, but I do think of it as insurance - extra voices of reason and kindness in their heads can't hurt, right? And it's fun..
Wonderful post, Jo! I regret to say that I stopped reading to my oldest around third grade, mostly because he was so adamant about reading to himself. But I still read to my younger son, who is in fourth grade, and reading this post made me wonder if he'd like hearing The Lord of the Rings. I'm going to go fetch it right this second. thanks for the inspiration!

Jo said…
Glad to be of service Frances. Actually, writing this post reminded me of the same thing.. think of me as I open that brick shaped book.. I'm thinking it will take much longer to read to the younger ones, because they aren't homeschooled now, and we can't spend half a day reading out loud if we want to..
Anonymous said…
Love this post, Jo. Your family tradition of reading aloud has clearly helped develop strong bonds.

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