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..