What is twaddle?

Twaddle is a buzz word among those in Charlotte Mason circles. We smile in recognition when we hear it and probably use the word ourselves sometimes. Yet it seems difficult to define it exactly. We might be able to give examples of twaddle, but we can’t quite wrap our minds around a succinct definition that is adequate. At least, I can’t.

How would you define twaddle? Here are some key thoughts taken from Charlotte’s comments.

1. Twaddle is talking down to a child.

I often think of twaddle as baby talk. You don’t talk baby talk to your child, so don’t give him books that talk baby talk. Those of us who live with our children beside us and talk with them all day are often astounded at the deep thoughts that they try to express. They may not get exact details or terminology correct, but that is not because they can’t think deeply; it’s because they haven’t yet had as many experiences as older children or adults have had. Too many authors assume children can’t think deeply, so they feed them silly, sometimes even rude, mental food. There might be a teeny bit of nourishing mind food included, but the child has to wade through a lot of pablum to find it. 

Here’s how Charlotte described this aspect of twaddle: 

Grown-up people who are not mothers talk and think far more childishly than the child does in their efforts to approach his mind. If a child talk twaddle, it is because his elders are in the habit of talking twaddle to him; leave him to himself, and his remarks are wise and sensible so far as his small experience guides him. Mothers seldom talk down to their children; they are too intimate with the little people, and have, therefore, too much respect for them: but professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons, are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood.

Home Education, p. 175

Twaddle talks down to a child.

2. Twaddle is diluted.

Another word Charlotte used about twaddle is “diluted.” Many of us love our cold beverages. There is something refreshing about an ice cold beverage, especially on a hot day. But let that iced beverage sit out for a while and what happens? The ice begins to melt and dilute that drink. You know what I’m talking about. There is a huge difference between a full-strength cold beverage and a diluted one. 

The same is true about our children’s books: There is a huge difference between a strong, well-written book and one that has been watered down. Charlotte used that adjective when describing

… the sort of diluted twaddle which is commonly thrust upon children.

Home Education, p. 176

Twaddle is diluted, or watered-down. And that leads into the next description of it . . .

3. Twaddle undervalues the intelligence of a child.

The reason many publishers dilute books for children is because they undervalue a child’s intelligence. They falsely equate lack of experience with lack of intelligence. Our children are capable of understanding a vast deal more than some people think they are.

Charlotte mentioned this aspect of twaddle in a couple of places. The first gives us an idea of what she means and offers an example of a well-intentioned Kindergarten teacher and a visitor:

Indeed, I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergärtnerin is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children. I know a person of three who happened to be found by a caller alone in the drawing-room. It was spring, and the caller thought to make himself entertaining with talk about the pretty ‘baa-lambs.’ But a pair of big blue eyes were fixed upon him and a solemn person made this solemn remark, ‘Isn’t it a dwefful howid thing to see a pig killed!’ We hope she had never seen or even heard of the killing of a pig, but she made as effective a protest against twaddle as would any woman of Society.

Home Education, p. 187

The second time Charlotte mentioned this aspect of twaddle was in reference to our children’s school books:

I am speaking now of his lesson-books, which are all too apt to be written in a style of insufferable twaddle, probably because they are written by persons who have never chanced to meet a child. All who know children know that they do not talk twaddle and do not like it, and prefer that which appeals to their understanding.

Home Education, p. 229

Our children can understand a lot more than most people realize. Twaddle undervalues their intelligence.

4. Twaddle is presented as reading-made-easy.

This is one of the reasons that Charlotte wanted the teachers to read the school books aloud to students in grades 1–3. The children can understand a higher level of writing than they can read for themselves at that age. Charlotte did not want to relegate them to reading-made-easy books with their one- or two-syllable words and their short, choppy sentences. She believed that even young children are capable of hearing and comprehending “worthy thoughts, well put” and “inspiring tales, well told” even if they can’t read them for themselves yet.

Charlotte said,

As for what are called children’s books, the children of educated parents are able to understand history written with literary power, and are not attracted by the twaddle of reading-made-easy little history books.

Home Education, p. 281

And she insisted that

[Children] must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.

Parents and Children, p. 263

Twaddle is reading-made-easy.

5. Twaddle is second-rate, stale, predictable writing.

We’ve compared twaddle to a diluted beverage. Now Charlotte compared it to stale food. Have you ever bit into a stale piece of bread or a stale potato chip or cracker? (Some of you are wrinkling your nose right now at that idea.) Some books are like that experience. They use typical phrases describing all-too-common situations and throw in predictable emotional reactions wrapped in a formulaic plot. There isn’t a shred of an original, delicious living idea in the whole thing.

The intellectual life, like every manner of spiritual life, has but one food whereby it lives and grows—the sustenance of living ideas. It is not possible to repeat this too often or too emphatically, for perhaps we err more in this respect than any other in bringing up children. We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. They complain that they know how the story will end! But that is not all; they know how every dreary page will unwind itself.

School Education, p. 121

Twaddle is stale, predictable writing. And there is another kind of writing that Charlotte highlighted as twaddle . . .

6. Twaddle is goody-goody story books or highly-spiced adventures of poor quality.

Yes, we want to use books that support the good habits and good character that we are trying to cultivate in our children. But we must be careful of giving them goody-goody books in which the plot is simplified to present the main character as perfect or always making the right choice.

On the other hand, we must be careful of books that present constant danger and adventure. Such stories offer an emotional high to the reader, but if you look under that adrenaline rush, you find little to no substance. 

I don’t think Charlotte was saying that we shouldn’t use books that present good examples or that contain adventures. I think she was cautioning us not to swing to either extreme, even if our children want those kinds of books.

Here’s how she put it:

What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature.

School Education, p. 168

“Titillating” means “exciting or stimulating.” Some well-written books are exciting and stimulating, but we need to be careful of a steady diet of poorly-written books that simply offer an emotional experience. 

Twaddle is goody-goody stories or highly-spiced adventures of poor quality.

7. Twaddle is also weak, light reading.

Charlotte bemoaned the number of people who would spend their time reading twaddle but never open a well-written book. She said, 

Many who would not read even a brilliant novel of a certain type, sit down to read twaddle without scruple. Nothing is too scrappy, nothing is too weak to ‘pass the time!’ The ‘Scraps’ literature of railway bookstalls is symptomatic.

Formation of Character, p. 214

I did a little poking around to find out more about this “Scraps” literature that was prevalent at the railway bookstalls in Charlotte’s day. Here is an interesting description from an article called “English Railway Fiction”  by Agnes Repplier, written for The Atlantic magazine in July of 1891:

Sandwiches, oranges, and penny novelettes are the three great requisites for English traveling,—for third-class traveling, at least; and, of the three, the novelette is by far the most imperative, a pleasant proof of how our intellectual needs outstrip our bodily requirements. The clerks and artisans, shopgirls, dressmakers, and milliners, who pour into London every morning by the early trains, have, each and every one, a choice specimen of penny fiction with which to beguile the short journey, and perhaps the few spare minutes of a busy day. The workingman who slouches up and down the platform, waiting for the moment of departure, is absorbed in some crumpled bit of pink-covered romance. The girl who lounges opposite to us in the carriage, and who would be a very pretty girl in any other conceivable hat, sucks mysterious sticky lozenges, and reads a story called Mariage à la Mode, or Getting into Society, which she subsequently lends to me,—seeing, I think, the covetous looks I cast in its direction,—and which I find gives as vivid and startling a picture of high life as one could reasonably expect for a penny. Should I fail to provide myself with one of these popular journals at the bookstall, another chance is generally afforded me before the train moves off; and I am startled out of a sleepy reverie by a small boy’s thrusting A Black Business alarmingly into my face, while a second diminutive lad on the platform holds out to me enticingly Fettered for Life, Neranya’s Revenge, and Ruby. The last has on the cover an alluring picture of a circus girl jumping through a hoop, which tempts me to the rashness of a purchase, circus riders being my literary weakness.

Do you get the sense of what those “Scraps” books were like? Do they remind you of any books you’ve seen lately in bookstores or online or at libraries? In Charlotte’s day, a man named Charles Mudie started a lending library that grew to be very popular. He was careful not to include novels with objectionable content, but he demanded that the fiction be suited to the middle-class family. And because of the popularity of his library, publishers and authors started catering to that type of light reading. 

What does this have to do with your children’s reading habits? Well, Charlotte traced an interesting sequence that we need to be aware of. Take a look at this: 

We do not all read scraps, under whatever piquant title, but the locust-swarm of this class of literature points to the small reading power amongst us. The mischief begins in the nursery. No sooner can a child read at all than hosts of friendly people show their interest in him by a present of a ‘pretty book.’ A ‘pretty book’ is not necessarily a picture-book, but one in which the page is nicely broken up in talk or short paragraphs. Pretty books for the schoolroom age follow those for the nursery, and, nursery and schoolroom outgrown, we are ready for ‘Mudie’s’ lightest novels; the succession of ‘pretty books’ never fails us; we have no time for works of any intellectual fibre, and we have no more assimilating power than has the schoolgirl who feeds upon cheese-cakes.

Formation of Character, p. 214

Twaddle is weak, light-reading.

Putting It All Together

So, if we combine what we’ve found in Charlotte’s words about twaddle, it is . . . diluted writing that undervalues a child’s intelligence and, so, talks down to him or relegates him to reading-made-easy content. It is second-rate, weak, light reading with stale, predictable plots, that can take the form of enticing goody-goody stories or highly-spiced adventures that cater to emotional highs.

Now if we throw in a few adjectives from modern dictionaries, we can round out our understanding even more. Twaddle is

Silly

Idle

Insignificant

Worthless

Trivial

Feeble

Tedious

So here’s a challenge: How would you summarize all of those concepts into a workable succinct definition? Can you define twaddle in one sentence? 

I would love to hear your definition. You see, one of the reasons I wanted to discuss twaddle was to help us all learn how to evaluate the books, videos, and other resources that we come across. It’s easy to just ask someone else, “Do you consider this twaddle?” But it is more helpful to you and your family if you can develop the skill of analyzing a resource for yourself. 

So let’s have some fun with it. Post your definition of twaddle as a comment. Remember, we’re not looking for specific titles, we’re looking for definitions that will help us evaluate any title that we come across.

Post your comment: How would you define twaddle? 

I look forward to reading your definition.

58 Comments

  1. Twaddle is…a senseless lack of worth while learning (of morals and values)period of idleness in my day.

    I hope this is a clear thought. This is a great contest. Wouldn’t it be something if we evaluated words we use today in this like manner more often. We might not use so many of the words, or so many words.

  2. Twaddle is to reading as a Hostess Twinkie is to eating.

    Maybe tasty but nothing of substance and often leaves you feeling that you’ve totally wasted your time– or in the case of the Twinkie –those precious calories.

    🙂

  3. Twaddle, in our home is described as “junk” — just like the food — a little won’t hurt you, but a steady diet of it can destroy you (or your thirst for beauty, goodness, and the truth).

  4. Twaddle is a manner by wich we treat a child’s natural interest in a wrong way based on a misconcetion that he is an unintelligent being, not a real thinker and we don’t need to expect deep thoughts from him, therefore to relate with him or to entertain him, you need meaningless talking and books with no real value literally.

    Thanx for this post, it really made me think! 🙂

  5. As I find my children interested in the Narnia series, I picked up ‘Surprised by Joy’ by C.S. Lewis. Among many things, it offers insight into his education which was the foundation of course for his numerous written works. He mentions how his love of good literature(which was primarily what was available) produced in him an excellent vocuabulary and skill in communication. The depth of this book in describing the impact of various types of his personal education has been surprising. While not the main point of the book, it is the ‘joy’ of which he speaks is in one way, a part of the whole person who benefits from a focus on the excellent, as opposed to the silly drivel of ‘twaddle’.

  6. When I think of twaddle, I always think of something C.S. Lewis said about children’s literature. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.” I believe that twaddle is any book that does not meet this standard.

  7. Twaddle: the baiting of small fries with worldly thought-bites in order to raise up giant fishes that are easily led astray by mainSTREAMers 😉

  8. These are great definitions and helpful comments, ladies!

    Just to let you know, we have not posted some of the comments that were submitted, because they contained only titles of materials that the submitter considered twaddle.

    We’re looking for definitions that will help us all evaluate whatever material we may pick up and look at.

    Keep them coming!

  9. Twaddle to me does not JUST apply to reading material that is “dumbed” down. I think it applies all across the curriculum. Twaddle are all activites that do not feed the soul, mind, and spirit. Wasting precious time creating things of no value. I am not totally against crafts-in fact- I love them! But when you make invaluable crafts everyday to “fill up” time, it is TWADDLE!
    As is “filling up” time, just to stretch out the school day! Instead let’s provide our children with materials that feed their intellect-but also the soul, and spirit! To me any other is considered twaddle! If we complete our day in a few hours but have deeply searched our souls and fed our spirits, then I am satisfied!

  10. Didn’t read the one sentence line!! Ha ha That is me—talk, talk, talk!

    Twaddle-Any activity that wastes precious time by not feeding the mind, soul, and spirit!

  11. Twaddle is anything you read to your kids that tempts you to skip pages and hope they don’t notice. Not that I’d ever do such a thing…!

  12. This isn’t original to me, but I’ve heard it said if it bores you to tears to read a book “again” to your child, then there’s a very good chance that it fits the twaddle category.

  13. Twaddle is shallow reading which does not contain rich language nor excercise the mind or imagination. I like the twinkie analogy…I was thinking of mac and cheese and it’s nutritional value…the box kind versus homemade. I want to help my children crave literary nutrients. 🙂

  14. Twaddle is DEFINITELY hard to define. I’ve been working my brain around this one for a few weeks. My girls love the classics such as Huckleberry Finn and Where the Red Fern Grows. But I wonder, too, if I should be doing more “childish” things with my 6 year old.

    As you can probably discern, we’re pretty new to CM.

  15. Twaddle is anything that can be done without engaging thought or stimulating the brain in a meaningful way. This can be spoken or written word, video games, etc. I also like the Twinkie and junk food analogies. I was thinking fluff, brain on vacation type things–trashy beach read, etc. I also agree, if it is worthwhile for adults as well as children to read (hear), then it is (probably) not twaddle.

    Great way to get my mind thinking in the right direction as I plan our library requests for the upcoming weeks 🙂

  16. Primal~ CM is new to me as well. There are many wonderful and beautifully illustrated books written for younger children that grown-ups also enjoy. Like Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey, or The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack just to name a couple. A few years ago I read Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt, she suggests many wonderful books to read together.

  17. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the difference in writing between the two types of books: Twaddle contains very short sentences. Non-twaddle has sentences that usually have at least one comma or other punctuation besides a period, and sometimes continue for two or more lines.

  18. Twaddle is the arrogance of adults to speak down to children as if they were not rational or intelligent; also, the failure to grow out of the ‘baby talk’ so frequently employed by adults to babies–it’s continued on well past the age into childhood.

  19. Twaddle is literature or curriculum which is useless toward the goal of expanding a child’s knowledge base, enriching their vocabulary and increasing their desire for new ideas and continued learning.

  20. I thought of this analogy the other day. Twaddle is like a handful of frosted flakes. Not worth having, an absolute waste of calories! It does absolutely nothing nutritionally for your body or health–sugary junk. But good literature is like a beautiful fruit salad!! So sweet and lovely it is a dessert! Yet it nourishes your body. Each piece of it is packed to the brim with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and so on. Not one bit of it is a waste. Good literature–fruit salad!!! Twaddle–frosted flakes.

  21. In our home we call twaddle, brain rot. Our definition for brain rot is anything you allow into your mind that is not edifying or fruitful in some way, so it rots your brain like bacteria does unrefrigerated meat.

  22. I meant to post my definition but never remembered to get around to it . I know the contest is over, but here’s my definition anyway:

    Twaddle is literature or lessons that fill up a timeslot on the child’s schedule, but do not fill his heart and mind with worthy, enriching ideas.

  23. Hi,
    My son who is now 10 years old, loves playing with Lego. Is it ok that he builds Pharoah’s pyramid with removable top and lego man with treasures inside and the ramps and stone carts out of legos? He spends hours making a complete scene and showing he understands Egypt and the slaves for a ‘project’ after we read about Ancient Egypt. This isn’t ‘useful’ or ‘decorative’ so does that make it Twaddle?? He wants to do all projects out of legos. Please give me suggestions for other ways to pull ‘projects’ out of living books.

    • It sounds like your son is doing a great job of hands-on narrating, Mrs. Koester. In fact, Charlotte talked about children’s playing what they learned from their history books. It shows that the child has formed a personal relation with the idea he read about.

      Our narration ideas may give you some other possibilities for hands-on narrations too.

  24. I am enthralled with this comment session. Thank you, Sonya and ladies!

    Splendid topic: it is really such a delicious, neverending, slice of the “Great Conversaton” that it demands “thought”. I concur with so many of the wonderful ideas laid forth here — I would just love to amplify them. I am definitely saving these posts to use for guidelines, when I find myself “pondering”, once again, “What is twaddle? — Is this book — ‘twaddle’?”

    If I were to have an original thought on this question — it would have to be this definition of what twaddle “ISN’T”:

    Twaddle “ISN’T” books that delight the parent,

    even children’s books,

    the ones that are like polished gems,

    with your mind doing the polishing

    polishing them — over and over.

    Twaddle “ISN’T” the very first books that come to mind in constructing a new “ultimate reading” list out of thin air —

    No, these books aren’t twaddle, these are the books that are worthy, the ones that truly delight — truly edify the mind and heart — through imagination.

    The books that you want to make “SURE” that ALL your children get the chance to read…these are NOT twaddle.

    Anything that fits into this “gem” quality category is NOT twaddle.

    The Story About Ping — comes to mind for me, almost first, every time. Definitely NOT twaddle! 🙂 And I’ve even found a few children’s textbooks that fit into this gem category as well! — My children delighting in their new found knowledge — and feeling so “adult” in discussions from what they have learned; How could I call those “Twaddle”? 🙂

    I may have a hard time defining “twaddle”, but I am well aware of what it “isn’t”.

    Twaddle doesn’t delight the parent! 🙂

  25. Twaddle is what results when you slaughter a potential noble idea and inspiring thought and moved by greed or other dubious intentions,you shift it through the collander of ignorance; and not regarding children as persons, you pack the result in attactively packaged containers to disguise the fact of the infamous quality of the contents.

    In fewer words, literacy reduced to consumism and instant gratification.

  26. Twaddle bears no nutrion for the soul or mind containing neither high ideals nor literary art. A well written book will contain both intellectual discourse and the unsurpassed art of words. I love to read a book to my children that challenges the mind and soul with deep and noble thoughts and whose literary style leaves “beautiful impressions”. One such book that comes to mind is George McDonald’s Wee Sir Gibie (in it’s original). It is a delight of thought and art.

  27. Twaddle – the books that make you cringe when your children select them at the library, but sigh as they begin to read silently as you pull out of the parking lot.

    Twaddle, in my opinion, isn’t always awful. There are days when you really want a Twinkie, and in a moment of childish delight you eat and smile. There are days when my kids read silly shallow books with glee. That doesn’t replace the other literature that they read, which they now have the appetite for, but it is fun, easy…brainless.

    It is good for us to eat a balanced diet – but every so often, on vacation, we may have pop-tarts for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and popcorn for dinner. It doesn’t ruin us, unless that is our existence.

    Twaddle – a vice, usually harmless and rarely beneficial involving the written word.

  28. Books and other media that are over simplified, overly emotional, and lack well stated intelligent ideas.

    Now I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s thoughts!

  29. To be honest this subject makes sense to me but is very new. I am guilt of reading and letting my children consume twaddle books and videos. I’m curious of how to transition a child from wanting to hear books as such and consume video content that is twaddle to rich literature. And better movies. Any suggestions?

    • Great question, Joy, and one many can relate to as well. We would recommend to give yourself and your child very much grace through this process of transitioning to more beneficial literature and whetting their appetites for something more “filling” so to speak. You can start by slowly adding some more quality books and movies into the mix. You can also try making some selections yourself and “strewing” them throughout the house for your child to come across naturally and flip through them on their own. Some children can respond well to this strewing because then it seems like it is “their” idea to engage with those materials rather than us making a big deal over the transition. I’ll be thinking of you as you begin to implement this into your home. Give it some time and stay consistent and you will see over time your child will likely start to prefer these types of books and movies over the others.

    • Tara, this is an excellent point that living books are moving and evoke emotion whereas twaddle falls flat in speaking to us on a deeper level.

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