The only time I watched “19 Kids and Counting,” that TV show about the Duggars, I nearly choked. My daughter was interested in it, so I sat down with her and turned it on. They are a home school family, and they are Christians, and I will not criticize them too much for any of their choices, because–God bless them–they are doing what they believe God has called them to do, raising that big bunch of kids.
But (you knew there would be a “but, didn’t you?) this one episode had the family visiting a public elementary school and talking to kids about their big family. Essentially they had become ambassadors for homeschooling. A student asked one of the older girls about her favorite book of all time. She smiled and named something that made me groan. Honestly, I don’t remember which book she named, but it was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. When I had looked it up, I found it was some sort of Christian fiction novel that oozes romance, bonnets, and formulaic simplicity. (See my blog on those silly books here.) I had SO wanted to see someone stand up and tell the world that she was a well-read homeschooler by announcing that her favorite book of all time was something like Les Miserables or The Scarlet Letter. Instead, she showed the shallowness of so many parents who just don’t reach beyond their comfort level and challenge their children with excellent literature.
So why the groan? Need you ask? (Please read my post on the need for excellence in home education here.) Let’s think of good literature like we think about food for just a moment. And in many ways, we can do that because literature is food for the brain. Consider what happens when you consume a steady diet of junk food for very long.
Not very attractive, is it? (Poor kids.) The same can be said about literature. Consuming mushy, senseless literature creates mushy thinking. There is no challenge for the mind to hang on to, no deep thinking to draw upon, no great themes to puzzle over. Mindless reading may be good for a day at the beach, but a steady diet of it will stultify the brain just like empty calories and high sugar content will create sluggish little bodies.
Challenge your child to read great literature. I have all sorts of good suggestions here. Give your child the wonderful struggle of good over evil, the theme that every conscience dwells on daily. Give them deep subjects to wrestle with, reaching slightly over their age level once in a while. Read to them from the non-abridged versions of classic literature and let their little imaginations soar. Once they get accustomed to a diet of rich literature, that junky, formulaic romance will no longer hold any sway.
Just like a good diet, though, you certainly don’t want to slip into old habits of sugary, fatty nonsense. Fill your bookshelf with classics that fire the imagination. Start them early with great selections from AA Milne, Shel Silverstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lucy Maud Montgomery, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more. Keep them going on that once they can read on their own. When they’re older, tantalize them with JK Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters. And once they have consumed all of this, they are ready for the really big guns: Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and more.
Why challenge their sweet little minds? Why not let them just read what they want? Because, left to their own devices, they will slink away to a corner and eat french fries and chocolate bars all day long. Left to their own devices, they will read Captain Underpants until their minds turn to fat, sweaty mush. Left to their own devices, they are suddenly age 17, wondering why they can’t pass their SAT tests.
Some moms have sweetly told me that while challenging their kids to work hard and well on their schoolwork is a good thing, raising them to be good people in a loving environment is much more important. I will always look those parents in the eye (figuratively, since I am speaking to them from the blogosphere) and remind them that one of the most loving things they can do is to teach their children hard work done well–a skill that will last them a lifetime, no matter what they do in their lives.