How to Guide Older Children in Independent Leisure Reading

As a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, you are probably very picky about the books that you share with your children, as you should be. But what do you do when your kids are starting to make that transition to choosing their own books? How can we shepherd them well in that season of life? Joining me today is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, let’s talk a little bit about when our children are making the transition to choosing their own books. We talked a lot about pre-reading and the importance of that, but we also recognize there comes a time when it’s physically impossible to keep up. You’ve got four kids, and all of them are avid readers, I’m assuming. I had four and they’re all readers, and it just becomes physically impossible to keep up.

Amber: It does, and in our home, I became a bottleneck, because I was used to pre-reading every single book that they ever read. I had a pile on my nightstand and children waiting for me to hurry up and finish those so that I could pass them off. These were books they wanted, and they were complaining about it. I thought to myself, “Is this really what I want for them? Where they aren’t free to read in their leisure time because I haven’t given them enough books that I’ve approved? Or that I’ve pre-read?” And I knew then that changes had to be made.

Sonya: And it’s not setting them up for success as adults, because they’re only with you for a certain amount of time. Once they leave your home, if they don’t know how to discern what is a good book and what to do with the ones that are not good, then we have not set them up for success. All we’ve done is made them more dependent on us. 

Amber: It’s very true. When we think of wanting to raise readers who are adults who enjoy reading and want to continue on in that way, we know they need a childhood of reading plenty of good books. It’s not just reading lesson books, but books for their free time. My kids read at night before bed, with their nightlights and all of those things, and it’s not possible with multiple kids, or even with one child, to think that for all of their childhoods you would be reading ahead of them. The key is preparing them to be discerning in what they’re reading and practicing that discernment under your loving gaze as they grow and are able to choose their own books. 

When we think of wanting to raise readers who are adults who enjoy reading, we know they need a childhood of reading plenty of good books. It’s not just reading lesson books, but books for their free time.

Sonya: Let’s walk through that process, if you will. How do we start out? How do we teach them that discernment? And then let’s talk about how we make the transition, practically speaking. How did you go about doing this? And then at the end, I want to touch on: what if they make a poor choice? Because it’s going to happen, as much as we hate to think about it. It’s going to happen, but we’ll deal with that. Let’s start at the beginning then. What kinds of things can we do to help our children learn this type of discernment? 

Amber: Two things. One is exposing them to really good books, to the best, because they will develop a taste. It’s the same thing as how children who eat lots of vegetables have a taste for vegetables when they’re older; children who are accustomed to reading and hearing really excellent literature develop a taste for that type of book. I’ve seen that play out in my own family. That doesn’t mean that they won’t ever want to read anything else, but my kids will be like, “Oh, this is a bubble gum book, but I’m going to read it anyway.” It’s a name they came up with, and I think it’s cute, and it’s meaningful to our family. It means “This book isn’t probably worthy of my time, but on a whim, I feel like it this rainy Saturday afternoon.” Helping them develop that taste is important. 

The other thing is in those years when I’m reading most things aloud, I narrate to them, or describe to them, my thoughts about this book. I might stop and say, “Okay, that idea that the author just shared is not something that our family believes,” or, “It’s not something that I think would be pleasing to the Lord for us to head in that direction, but I know that this book has a lot of other ideas in it that are good for us to learn and examine, so I’m going to continue reading.” And we’ll go ahead and finish the book. And there have been a few times, not as much, but where I say, “Okay guys, I thought I vetted this book ahead of time. I thought it was heading in one direction; I see that the author is headed in a completely different direction, and it’s so saturated with things that I don’t think are true or good that we’re just going to set this book aside and read something else.” So I could do that as a parent on my own without explaining it to them, but that is one way that I show them that I’m in a constant process of this in my own life, and this is how you can do that as well.

Sonya: It’s just like walking them through the thought process and how you are thinking about it. It reminds me of how you make the transition when you’re teaching a chore, “I do it and you watch me, I do it and you help me, okay, now you’re going to do it, and I’m going to help you,” and so on and so forth, until they can do it on their own. You have vetted it ahead of time and they’re watching or listening as you read aloud the good stuff, so they know what the standard is and they’re very familiar. They’re expecting this high standard, but then you’re also going to walk them through your thought process. I assume that doesn’t take up 10 minutes of every lesson. 

Amber: No, it is very quick, because in many lessons it doesn’t come up at all. You’re just reading the book, everything’s fine. It is important to me that I want to strike a balance. There is a spectrum, and perhaps each family, and then each individual, has different feelings about what he or she is able to tolerate or accept in a book. It is important that they don’t feel like just because this book contains something that we disagree with, we throw the book away. That is going to happen, so it’s a matter of being able to tell when it’s okay to keep reading and say, “Okay, I’m learning about a different perspective here,” and when it becomes something that is not good for us to read, or we shouldn’t use our time to pursue this author’s thoughts. It’s delicate, and it’s something adults are still learning as well. Sometimes I find myself wondering, “Should I be reading this?”

There is a spectrum, and each family and each individual has different feelings about what he or she is able to tolerate or accept in a book. It is important that they don’t feel like just because this book contains something that we disagree with, we throw the book away. It’s a matter of being able to tell when it’s okay to keep reading, or when we shouldn’t use our time to pursue this author’s thoughts.

Sonya: I did that last week. I was reading a novel that someone else said is a favorite book of this particular time period, historical fiction book, and I got up to chapter 7, and even from the first chapter it was like “Oh, I didn’t expect that in there,” and then I read a couple more chapters, and it was, “Oh, I didn’t expect that.” I got to chapter 7, and it was like, “Why am I still reading this? Forget it.”

Amber: Yeah, “This is not for me.” That’s a wise thing to teach, and you don’t have to read everything that perfectly aligns with your thoughts, either. It’s an art as much as it is a science. Our children need practice, and in the beginning, when they’re younger, they’re practicing through me telling them my thought process; that’s their practice. But then as they get older, I want to see them practicing. “What do you think about that book?” or, “What do you think about what they said in this chapter?” or, “What about the author’s perspective on such and such?” I’m listening to them, and we’re discussing it, and that’s the next stage. 

Sonya: That’s how you make that transition. So have you still read that book ahead of time so you know what questions to ask? Like, “What did you think about this particular aspect of it?” Is that how you made the transition?

Amber: Yes, and even more so with the younger children, because that first one is more of my guinea pig. I’m like a night ahead of her in the reading, but now I’ve read that book before, and so as I’m reading it with my younger children, or my younger children are reading it, I have read that book and I’ve gone through it with a child already. I really try to stay up to date with my oldest’s readings, knowing that that will flow down through the years with the other children.

Sonya: How do you remember all of these for all these titles? Do you have cheat sheets?

Amber: I do! And they’re in my books. It’s just right there in the flap of the book, and I always think to myself “This is going to be a gift for someone.” Can you imagine if you had your grandmother’s book and had her notes in there of what she thought? Or even warnings, like top of page 117, “That’s not true,” with exclamation, exclamation! It’s a special time, and it helps me when I’m doing that book two years later with someone else. Two years later I don’t necessarily need to re-read the book all over, because I can look at my notes and say, “Okay I remember that, I remember this.” I don’t want people to feel like it’s always a warning of bad content, like “This is not okay for Christians,” sometimes it’s just something that my child is unfamiliar with. It could be something that’s controversial; it could be something we just haven’t studied or discussed before, and I want to be very sensitive about what they’re hearing about it for the first time. I want to be involved in that, so I might say on a note on page 26, “Come get me when you get to this page,” and just little things like that. They’re not extensive notes; they’re not Cliff Notes, they’re not a booklet.

Sonya: So when you say something like “Come get me,” to me, that signifies that you have, part of the whole process up to this point, been developing a relationship so your child will come get you. Talk a little bit about that relationship. What should that be like? How do you cultivate it? What should it look like?

Amber: It’s a couple of things. I have hard conversations with my kids, so they have the experience of discussing difficult things with me. The other thing is that I’ve always told the kids, “When you come to me, you are not going to get in trouble for what you share.” It can be scary for kids. I know a little bit it was for me as a child, “I don’t really want to tell my parents that I saw this movie at the sleepover, because then I won’t be able to be friends with her anymore,” or, “My parents will be mad at me that I watched something I wasn’t allowed to watch.” I don’t want that with my children. “Come and tell me. So you were reading a book, it might have even been a book I provided, and I’m sorry, I vetted it but I might not have pre-read it. And something made you uncomfortable, whatever it is, just come tell me, let’s talk about it, and let’s talk about why you’re uncomfortable and what that means. I’d even love to hear your thoughts on whether you should keep reading that book or not.” My comfort grows as I see them having these discussions with me. They’re repeatedly doing the hard thing of coming to talk to me about what they’re reading, and it helps prepare us for that final stage you discussed.

When you come to me, you are not going to get in trouble for what you share.

Sonya: Have you seen this happen with your teenagers?

Amber: Oh yes, definitely, and every time it happens, I have to tell you, secretly I’m like “Mm-hm, yes, okay,” and when the child leaves the room I’m like, “Yes, I’m winning!” And that’s so good, but I want them to know that I trust them, and I really do. I think that we’ve been working up to this point of independence and independent reading for a very long time, and I didn’t just throw them out there. My oldest has come to me before and said, “Mom, this is in this book; I want to read this passage to you. I think that based on things I’ve read online and where the author’s going with it, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of this in the book, so I’d like to keep going. That’s what I’m thinking. What do you think?” And we’ll talk about that and I’m like, “Yeah, you should do it, keep going, because you can always stop, right? Just keep going, see where it takes you.” And at the end, oftentimes she’s gone, “Mom, I’m so glad I didn’t stop reading that book; it was so good.” There have been other times where she’s like, “I’m going to keep going” and then later she comes, “Ah, forget it, it’s too much, it’s too much of what I don’t want to take in.” And I’m telling her, “Congratulations, you are maturing, that’s what that looks like, where you’re making that decision on your own.” I become more of a friend; it’s like more of a book club environment, where we’re talking about what we liked or didn’t like, and what we got and gained from a book and what we might have set aside, and it’s less of a dictatorship. I’m not like, “you can’t read this.” I don’t think that works well; it backfires, and I’ve tried that before, actually.

Sonya: Well, and it reminds me of how Charlotte described the teacher; the teacher is a guide and a friend. You transition into that role of friend, as you said. You guided her, when she was younger, to develop those powers of discernment through your own example and your own conversations and your relationship with her, and now you’re at the point where you can transition to being her friend and listening to her process out loud and reinforcing the good decisions. Okay, so what if the decision is not good, has that ever happened?

Amber: Yes, and we have hiccups. It happens a lot of times with popular books that the kids see being shared at the library, on top of the shelf, or that they read about in magazines or their different friends tell them about, and it’s really difficult, because they’re begging to read this book and I’m looking at the book, I’m like, “This is trash and I don’t really want my kid to read this,” and they’re wanting to read it. For me, it really depends on the child. I don’t have an age cut-off like, “This kid could read this and this kid can’t.” Creating forbidden fruit can sometimes be difficult in a literary world. I try to say “yes” as much as I can. And the reason for that is sometimes I say “no” and I want them to respect the “no” and not feel like it’s frequent. The times where I’ve said, “Listen, I read that book,” or, “I read about that book and it’s just a hard ‘no,’ and when you are an adult or when you’re older, if that’s what you choose to read, that’s fine, but I can’t in good conscience allow you to read that now.” 

Sonya: Do you give them some of your thought process behind it? “It’s a hard ‘no’ because it contains…”

Amber: Definitely, and you know, we can talk about that. Same child, my oldest, is very sensitive to extreme violence and gore. I noticed it in movies when she was growing up, even in movies made for kids, she would be shaking, she was scared, even though the other kids weren’t. I’m like, “I know about this book and some of the scenes are very, very graphic with violence, and I think it will disturb you.” She’s like, “Mama, it’s fine, that was when I was younger; I can handle it” or whatever, and I’m like, “No, because you don’t fit in our bed anymore, and I remember the nights where you were sleeping right there for weeks because of something that you saw or read. So that’s a ‘no.’ I just don’t advise that for you with so many other options.” So those are examples, and that’s an example where that book isn’t necessarily bad. Another child might be able to look right past that and think nothing of it, but I know my kids. As a parent, I do have the final say and ability to say “no,” but I also have the responsibility to reserve that only for the times when I really have to. I want them to have an increased freedom and ownership, knowing that they won’t always live with me, and at some point, they’ll be able to read whatever they want, whenever they want. I’d like them to practice while they’re still in my home.

As a parent, I do have the final say and ability to say “no,” but I also have the responsibility to reserve that only for the times when I really have to.

Sonya: You learn a lot from making mistakes; let’s be honest. And hopefully, if you have fed them with what is good and noble and just and worthy as much as you can all of these years, you are feeding them that good standard of books. It’s not that they’re only reading these things, that’s just on the side. They’re going to see it doesn’t measure up. And I keep thinking of the phrase, “separating the wheat from the chaff.” Some books are only chaff.

Amber: I agree. That reminds me of another strategy I have. It directs my family read-aloud. Sometimes when I see someone heading off and I want to pull him or her back, I’ll just go get a really rich book that I know is a great story, and we have a tradition of family read-alouds daily. So when I bring that out, they’re hanging on my every word, and it makes them want more of that feeling. 

Sonya: Of the good stuff.

Amber: Yes, wanting more of that. There are ways to strategically drop that in and keep it going over time. It’s not, “Oh, well, you’re older, you’re in high school now, so do what you want,” but I am still guiding, even then.

Sonya: Yes, I think that’s wise. What would you say to a parent who has a hard time letting go of this, who is the bottleneck and admits it, but has not yet come to the point of being able to let go and take a step back and allow the children to have a little bit of choice in this matter? How can that parent get started down this path?

Amber: First, I’ll say I understand, because I was there. When you think beyond just books, what you want for your children, who you want them to become, and you realize that you’re leading in fear in that moment rather than setting an example. It’s being willing to dig in and do the hard work to get to the end of this educational journey and having your child set up for a really whole living as an adult.  When you back up and think “This is not just about the book, but it’s really about who I’m raising, and how I’m raising him to be,” it allows you to, even if you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to let go of this…“

Sonya: White-knuckle, peel the fingers off.

Amber: Exactly. Community helps because you can say, “Hey guys, have you heard of this? Are you familiar with this book? I don’t have time to pre-read it, what do you think about this book?” And there are websites where you can get really good reviews from people you know think similarly, or would feel the same way about certain books. Sometimes, I really have to rely on that and say, “I researched this to the best of my ability; I think this is going to be fine for them.” And if it’s not, I trust that they’ll come to me. 

Sonya: And you will tell them that when you hand it to them?

Amber: Yeah, because I’m sometimes like, “Here you go.” It was a very difficult transition for me, but now that I’m on the other side of it, I can say it was absolutely the best thing to do.

Sonya: That’s wonderful. So what we don’t want to do is swing from one extreme to the other, where we say, “I have to pre-read everything… Okay, never mind, just read whatever you want to.”

Amber: Yeah, this is not “anything goes.”

Sonya: No, it is helping shepherd our children through thinking with discernment, step by step, stage by stage, and keeping those lines of communication open, so you can continue to coach and be their friend and speak into what they are reading and have them share their thoughts with you. It’s life. 

Amber: It is, it’s good practice, 

Sonya: It is. Thanks. 

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