Why Families Should Promote Classics

How good literature benefits children

(photo: Shutterstock)

With modern technology muscling in on reading time, it’s a good time to restore reading to its rightful place.

Catholic academics shared with the Register how families can promote good literature with their children.


Cultivating Imagination

“Good reading is crucial for the early and ongoing formation of the imagination. We all love stories and arguably learn best indirectly through stories,” explained William Fahey, president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., and editor of The Civilized Reader in Crisis Magazine online.

In light of the current culture, Fahey, who has five children, advised, “If the parents are not plotting out a course for the family, then someone else will, and that someone is not likely to be a friend to our faith or the family or the child’s mind.”

“Reading good books,” he added, “may not guarantee that anyone turns out to be the finest soul on the planet, but the odds are better, because the child — and the adult — will have a moral imagination, an imagination charged with ideas, characters, stories that will be useful in navigating life.”

Jared Staudt, coordinator of the Catholic studies program at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., pointed out that “great literature teaches common sense, how to think rightly about reality and have wonder in the face of reality. It enlivens the imagination and really lays the foundation for more generalized education that follows.”

Staudt, a father of five children, said, “The important point is that the classical authors are the foundation of the Western tradition.”

Patricia Crawford, associate professor of early childhood education, language, literacy and culture at the University of Pittsburgh and a Register contributor, detailed another of classical literature’s myriad benefits.

“Young children exposed to traditional literature, such as folk and fairy tales, begin to develop a literary sense,” she noted. They learn about common story structures, plot, characterization and literary features, she added.


A Family Activity

The greatest challenge can be to spark and sustain the children’s interest, Fahey said. “The key is that the mother and father must be readers themselves.”

A son is unlikely to pick up The Story of King Arthur and His Knights if he only sees his father skimming the Internet or watching TV, and a daughter will not work through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series if her mother is preoccupied with her iPhone, he noted.

“Both parents need to make a very serious effort to do two things: read the classics themselves and schedule time for family reading,” he affirmed. “Even 20 minutes a day makes a difference.”

“The parents should take turns reading books aloud, and all children — or at least all children under high-school age — should be present,” Fahey advised.

Staudt suggested sitting together to experience a book read aloud together to make it a memorable experience. “Great literature is very engaging, so it should really capture and stir the children’s imagination.”

Crawford offered another possibility: “Bedtime rituals provide an opportunity for kids to snuggle close to Mom and Dad, while enjoying a wonderful story.”

Exposure to classical literature should begin in the crib. “By sharing traditional nursery rhymes, parents introduce their children to the joy of language and the rhythm and rhyme of the world of poetry,” Crawford has found.

There is another benefit: family conversations about the works.

“For readers of all ages, classical literature can serve as a great springboard for examining a whole range of moral, ethical and spiritual issues,” observed Crawford. “For this reason, it is important for children to not just read these texts, but also to have an opportunity to discuss them and consider their applications to real-world situations. Parents play a very important role in providing guidance and making this happen.”

The characters in classic stories “replace ephemeral movie characters or glitzy pop idols as points of reference,” asserted Fahey. “The child’s and the adult’s moral imagination can only be colored if reading is an individual habit and part of the culture of the family.”

For example, Staudt said that, with Aesop’s Fables, youngsters like to guess what the moral of each story is and then talk about that moral.


What to Read

He suggests beginning with Aesop, fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis before a transition into Greek myths, Homer and dramas by Sophocles as the foundation of Western literature.

Children love reading Tolkien out loud, he said. His own kids — the oldest is 10 — have read aloud both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more than once.

Good literature opens children up to a sense of wonder. “The wonder opens up the mind, and they are inspired and excited to want to learn more,” Staudt said.

Among Fahey’s recommendations are Beatrix Potter’s books for youngest readers (The Tale of Peter Rabbit, et al), the Little House series for middle readers and the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson for high schoolers.

These works — great stories with beautiful language and first-rate characters — “will remain with the reader for his life.” Fahey encouraged referencing his article “Will Rascals Defend Our Civilization … and What Books Will They Read?” at CrisisMagazine.com.

Among Crawford’s suggestions are nursery rhymes, favorite poems, simple fairy tales and classic picture books for preschoolers; classics such as Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series for elementary children; and novels by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen for secondary students, who will also benefit from reading 20th-century classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

And faith-based classics are a must-read. “Don’t forget,” she emphasized, “to include great Bible stories and the lives of the saints for children of all ages.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.