A while back, my children and I finished reading through The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne (you can see my mini-review here). While there were things all throughout the book that struck me, this interchange near the end of the final chapter snagged my attention like a flashing red light:
So they began going there, and after they had walked a little way Christopher Robin said:
"What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?"
"Well," said Pooh,"what I like best----" and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.What is that called? The thing which brought this particular exchange to my attention was the fact that what Milne, through the honey-stained lips of Pooh, describes is the experience C.S. Lewis would refer to as Joy in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, some 27 years later. The stabbing sense of happiness or satisfaction that comes from the anticipation of a pleasure without or prior to the experience itself. And here is Milne writing about it in a children's book about a boy and his stuffed bear. This sort of thoughtfulness and insight is not uncommon from Milne (see here, and here).
These sort of children's books do exist. Places like the 100 Acre Wood, Narnia, The Lonely Mountain, and Mr. McGregor's garden hold a world of wonderful enjoyment and learning for our children. Leaning about the real world of thoughts, emotions, sin, salvation, courage, cowardice, and on and on.
This isn't any great secret, at least I don't think it is. And yet we still, as parents, fall into three pitfalls, which I shall address in turn.
1) Thinking movies and the television are good for our kids.
I'm not a radical anti-TV type. At least not yet. But I do have serious doubts as to any benefit that will be gained from watching movies or television shows. Screens are a completely unidirectional form of communication; they involve no true engagement or interaction from the viewer. We simply receive whatever the writer, director, producer, etc have determined we are to receive. Sometimes that's good, often it's not. But even when it is good, we have not participated in the same way we do with Edmund when he betrays his siblings or is restored by Aslan. It's a lot harder to see through the animation to grasp that Eeyore isn't actually a sad donkey, he's gloomy person, the sort that will suck the life out of any party if you let them. You are (I hope) actively evaluating these words as you read them. The same is rarely true of what we see coming through the tube (as anachronistic as that term may be).
2) Not reading to our kids.
I may not be (completely) anti-TV, but I am anti non-reading. If you don't read to your kids I'm tempted to say you should be drawn and quartered, but that probably wouldn't solve the problem, so let me offer some advice to you: parents who love their children hug them, spank them, and read to them. Beyond all of evidence which supports reading to your children for the sake of their intellectual well-being, I think there is something profoundly important about the kind of focused attention you are giving a child as they sit on your lap listening to you read. You are both engaged together in this common activity of Progressing with Pilgrim, Adventuring with Bilbo, or Colleting Nuts with Timmy Tiptoes. Your kids need you, and reading to them is an important way that you can give yourself to them.
3) Reading the wrong books.
This one is tricky. For a number of reasons. First, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, of the making of many books, there is no end. People are always making new books. And to be quite frank, most of them aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Second, just as marshmallows aren't always bad, so My Little Pony and Disney princess books aren't always bad. But when that's all you consume, things aren't going to go so well for you. The muscle of you mind, the strength of your imagination, and the health of your vocabulary will suffer. I have purposely made reference to a number of books that I do consider valuable, and I think reading such things is of utmost importance, especially as our children get older. So while I'm not suggesting you make the books based off of cartoons disappear, I would suggest picking up some Beatrix Potter and working in more of that. S'mores are good now and again, but better to serve up meat and potatoes for dinner.
In summary, make a habit of reading with your kids. If they're little, you're at an ideal time to start. If they're older, it's never too late. Some of my fondest memories growing up, even into my teen years, are of sitting around as a family listening to my Mom read books, such as, In the Heart of the Rockies. Don't know where to start? Here are few Dole family favorites:
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter (and all the other tales, as well)
Hello Ninja, ND Wilson
Love and Kisses, Sarah Wilson
The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones
Good Night, Gorilla, Peggy Rathmann
These books obviously reflect the young age of our children. As they age, we plan to incorporate more CS Lewis, ND Wilson (his YA books), JRR Tolkien, GA Henty, John Bunyan, RL Stevenson, etc.
You'll also notice that many of those links take you to Kindle versions. I'm a pretty hardcore hardcopy guy (another post for another time), but I realize that building a library, even of children's books, is an expensive business. Electronic versions are certainly cheaper, even if the aren't as wholesome, healthy, or awesome. Just read, man. Just read.