When your child is young, you may be able to control all the books they read – picking out library books, choosing which books to buy, and reading aloud to them the books you feel comfortable with.
But as they get older, this becomes more and more difficult.
They want to choose their own books at the library. You aren’t there when they’re selecting books at the school library. Or they read too much for you to possibly pre-read everything they are interested in.
The good news is that this is a really exciting new stage as they develop into their own independent reader (and you WANT them to become an independent reader!).
I personally feel like it’s a much better strategy to teach your child how to choose appropriate books for themselves than to try to screen every single book they pick up – it’s a skill that will serve them their whole life!
And because everyone’s definition of “appropriate” is so different, it’s not reasonable to expect your child’s teacher or school librarian to act as gatekeeper for you. You might have no problem with some language that your neighbor would find horrifying. You might be strongly opposed to a book where a child lies to their parent and another family might completely in love with that book.
And maybe you don’t care at all about monitoring what your child is reading – that’s also your choice to make a parent! The great thing is that every family is different and can choose what works for them.
Here are some ways that might help you teach your child to choose appropriate books:
How to Help Your Child Choose Appropriate Books
- Remember this is a skill learned over time. The most important part of teaching your child to pick appropriate books is to remember that this isn’t something that you can have one conversation about and be done with. It’s an ongoing conversation over many years and it’s not just limited to books – it’s also a great conversation to have about movies and shows and music.
- Start young. Helping kids pick the right books is something you can start helping them understand long before they’re choosing their own books. If you’re reading a picture book with unkind sibling behavior or sexist themes or whatever it might be that you don’t want them exposed to, you can say “oh, this child is being really unkind to their baby brother. This isn’t the kind of behavior we want to read about. Let’s pick a different book.” Having those conversations early gets them used to thinking about making their own choices as they grow up!
- Pick 2-3 things you most want to avoid. There are probably a million things you don’t want your child exposed to in books, but that’s too broad to be helpful. Instead, at each stage, choose a few things you want to avoid and make those boundaries clear to your child. Maybe it’s bathroom humor and swearing. Choose what matters to you and make those standards clear. And obviously this will change over time. You might not want your first grader reading books where kids are having crushes or talking about dating but you’d feel find about that for your seventh grader.
- Explain WHY you want them to choose appropriate books. There are many reasons you might want to avoid certain topics – they might be too scary for your child or your child might be prone to imitating language and behavior that you don’t want in your home, or you might not want your child exposed to particular topics like abuse or suicide or drugs or a million other difficult topics on their own without a parent to read it with them. It’s generally unhelpful to tell your child “I just don’t want you reading this” without explaining at least a basic “why” behind them. If you can help them understand that you don’t want them reading books with a lot of potty humor because that’s not the kind of humor you want them to get used to thinking about.
- Recognize that there will be surprises. Some things will always slip through – know that this is part of the learning and growing process about choosing your own media and that it’s not the end of the world. It’s a chance to have a good conversation about it and plan for going forward. These are good experiences!
- Be a safe space to ask questions. You don’t want your child to feel like they’ll get in trouble if they come to you and ask a question about something they’ve been reading that you might not be thrilled about. Freaking out is a quick way to keep them from ever wanting to ask questions or discuss their reading with you. Answer their questions, talk to them about the book they’re reading and decide together how to move forward.
- Model how you look through a book. When you’re at the bookstore or library, spend some time with your child looking through a book and show them what choosing a good book can look like. Say things like “Oh, this is a fun cover. Let me read the synopsis. Hmm, this looks like the main character is making some bad choices about lying. What do you think – is this book sound like it’s worth reading or should we keep looking?” or show them how you flip through and read a few sentences here and there to check for language or content.
- Give them plenty of good options. The great thing is that there are lots of great books out there. If you don’t want them reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, there are plenty of other great, fun choices. If you hate Junie B. Jones, there are thousands of other delightful school stories for early chapter book readers. Spend some time finding good options so they have plenty to choose from.
- Show them that you do the same in your own media consumption. Picking appropriate books isn’t just for kids – it’s something we do our whole life with any media we consume. Mention when you start watching a show and quit because it’s not in line with your values or that you turned off a song because you didn’t want to hear that language or how you loved a book that showcased people taking good care of the earth. We never grow out of having to choose what kind of media we want in our life and it’s helpful to show children that they are learning an adult skill that will serve them all their lives!
Any other suggestions for helping your child choose appropriate books? I’d love to hear how you handle this in your home!
As a former elementary teacher librarian and now a middle school TL, I’ve seen various stages of ability in book selection. It truly is a skill learned over time. I can’t stress how much kids need time to spend in the library just browsing. Having a teacher announce that kids get two minutes to find a book on their weekly. Visits is so disheartening.
I taught my kids how to close a book and walk away without finishing it the moment they come across something inappropriate. That level of commitment is necessary, especially as they get older.
Allison M. says
Thank you for sharing this post. I’m a librarian and I’ve seen a lot of parent concern lately over what their kids are reading. Teaching kids this skill is such a good solution! That way, the library can keep books on the shelves that some families might not feel is inappropriate, because every family has different standards.
Janssen Bradshaw says
Yes! Just because you don’t want YOUR child to read it doesn’t mean NO child should be able to read it.