Chapters of Mothering

How Reading Shapes a Child

Some milestones in our children’s lives stick with us. I cannot forget teaching our children to read — a pleasure that continues as I help our youngest son.

I remember the weight of my charge to help my young children’s developing minds grasp written language! This skill enables them to read God’s word for themselves. What could be more motivating for me as their mom and teacher? Yet the process of training them to read started long before they turned four or five or six or seven. It started when they were babies being read board books by Mom and Dad.

Cultivate the Right Tastes Together

Reading doesn’t begin as an activity your child does by himself. It begins with fathers and mothers. It begins with us reading aloud. We increase our kid’s appetite by narrating books that they enjoy and understand. These books are not the books you would choose to read in your alone time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them together.

This is a benefit of being a mom — getting to find joy and delight in the things that our children find joy and delight in. We get to reexperience every stage of childhood, which means we get to reexperience every stage of reading. Are there moments when this is more duty than delight? Of course! But not often if you’ve taken care to put off that sinful sort of adulthood that can’t enjoy the childlikeness that marks the very kingdom of God.

I have memorized many books over the years (even longer ones!) simply because my young children wanted to hear the book over and over, day after day, night after night. This sort of repetition is good for them and us. We often benefit more from knowing one good book inside and out than we would from barely knowing ten books, so welcome your child’s love of repetition.

Discipling Readers

From the earliest books you read to your children, remember that you’re cultivating tastes — tastes for rhyme, rhythm, and cadence; tastes for artwork, color, and illustrations; tastes for themes, plots, and morals.

Books are not inherently virtuous. Books can have good content and bad content. The cadence can be off, the themes can be foolish, the illustrations can be gaudy. As mom, you get to help weed out the bad and offer up the good. It won’t do to send young sons or daughters to peruse the aisles of the children’s section at the public library or bookstore without your steady hand to guide them.

“From the earliest books you read to your children, remember that you’re cultivating tastes.”

Books can teach and catechize all sorts of ungodly ideologies, but thankfully, that’s why children have a mom — so that she can help to discern between books that are junk food, books that are snack food, books that are poison, and books that are healthy. And, as a Christian, it’s perfectly acceptable to avoid the public library altogether if you find it unhelpful. That was my approach. Instead, we started our own home library — a decision I’ve never regretted.

The Good, the True, the Beautiful

One of our favorite family pastimes has been to listen to books together while in the car — either a lengthy book series over a long trip, or shorter books on the way to weekly activities. We made the decision early on to avoid screens for our kids in the car, but instead to listen to books and music, and talk to each other.

Once we were driving a fifteen-hour trek from Montana home to Minnesota in one day, and we had been listening to The Chronicles of Narnia. It was our first time listening to the whole series as a family, and our five children ranged from infant to grade school. We finally arrived home late at night, but we still had about fifteen minutes left of The Last Battle. So, at the older kids’ request, we parked the car in the garage and sat for fifteen more minutes going further up and further into True Narnia, as tears streamed down my face at the wonder of it all.

But why do we encourage our kids to read? I’ve noticed that there is a sort of strange pride we moms can have about our children being “readers,” as though a child with his head in a book must be a good kid, or at the very least, a smart one. But we moms need to know better. Reading is a means, not an end. And it ought to be a means to Christian virtue — to the good, the true, and the beautiful — and to help sharpen or challenge thinking, to inspire courage, and glean insight. If reading is desirable merely because it’s better than the TV or iPad, then we should probably raise the bar.

“God knows how to write the best stories. We want our children to read of him, trust him, and enjoy him forever.”

Just as we must be discerning readers and help our children develop into discerning readers, we also must be discerning moms — seeing clearly whether our children’s reading habit is cultivating virtue or suppressing it. As our children have grown to love reading, I have frequently confiscated (good!) books, and reminded them they have stories of their own to be living. Get outside, solve a problem, talk to people, do your chores, tell some jokes, make music. Do I want them to be “readers”? Yes, inasmuch as reading cultivates virtue, not a malformed introversion.

Expect the Eucatastrophe

When our oldest daughter, Eliza, was ten, she was finishing up a book in the back seat of our minivan. Seth, her younger brother, was reading the last chapter along with her, not having read the rest of the book. He commented to her, “It looks like it’s going to be a happy ending.” She responded, “Oh, I don’t like happy endings. That means the book is over.” Then she gave this insight, “But when things are scary or sad at the end, you know there will be another chapter or book coming.”

Haven’t you known the sinking feeling of ending a book that you love? J.R.R. Tolkien said that the best kind of stories (which he calls fairy-tales) don’t have an ending. But what they do have is the eucatastrophe, which Tolkien describes in one of his letters:

I coined the word eucatastrophe: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 100)

Perhaps the greatest virtue we aim to instill in our children through reading is to recognize the eucatastrophe, and learn to expect it — which is integral to the Christian faith and story. This reality is why we would have them daily become acquainted with the stories and rhythms and plots and cadence and themes of the Scriptures through reading.

The Best of Stories

The great Eucatastrophe has happened — God the Son was crucified and buried, then raised to life on the third day. But there are more eucatastrophes to come for those who are in Christ.

That is why the chief book we encourage our kids to read is Scripture. The God who brought his people through the Red Sea as they were pressed by Pharoah’s army, and who toppled the walls of Jericho with trumpets and shouts, and who used a young shepherd to take down Goliath, and who kept Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego unsinged in the hottest fire, and who rescued his people with a beautiful young woman turned Queen Esther — he knows how to rescue the godly when all seems lost. He knows how to write the best stories. We want our children to read of him, trust him, and enjoy him forever.