Jul 12, 2016

The Day My Third-Graders Read About Adultery

By Heather Judd

From time to time a note from a concerned parent comes my way: “I’m not sure my child should read that literature book.” Among others, I have received objections to Beowulf (gory monster battles), The Magician’s Nephew (the beautiful queen makes evil seem appealing), and Greek mythology (paganism and the immorality of the gods). I am always glad to see parents actively involved in monitoring their children’s reading, and such situations are good opportunities to talk with them about why certain books are in our school’s curriculum.

Literature is, indeed, a wild and awesome land. As it is wise not to turn your children loose in a remote forest alone, so it is wise not to allow your children to read whatever they happen to pick up. Nature is splendid, but also deadly. Books are marvelous, but also dangerous.

However, children should go outside to play, and children should read books. I suppose you could remove all the rocks and sticks from your yard, check that there are no bees or mosquitoes present, cover your child with sunblock, slap on his helmet and kneepads, warn him not to climb trees, and sit him on the carefully manicured lawn with your blessing to enjoy himself, but it seems doubtful he would grow up with any great love of the outdoors. Similarly, efforts to edit books so that they are “clean” or “safe” for young readers almost inevitably efface some essential aspect of the real, majestic, dangerous work of literature.

Saint Paul’s commendation in Philippians 4:8 is often held up as a guide for book selection, and it is fitting to remember that we should think upon whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy; however, it is also wise to understand that no book we pick will perfectly meet all these criteria.

As a test case, take the book that contains the best of those virtues. Any family who has read straight through the Bible for devotions will have experienced portions of Scripture that make the pious squeamish.  Even if we give ourselves a freebie and skip over Song of Solomon, Scriptures are full of sexual content, violence, religious mockery, worship of pagan gods, disrespectful youths, drunkenness, stealing, suicide, witchcraft, and other PG-13-rated content.  Much “classic” literature reveals a similar inventory of disagreeable subject matter.

Are you suddenly feeling an urge to repossess your third grader’s Bible and start blacking out passages? To bury the set of 100 classics in the back yard?  Before taking such drastic measures, consider the deeper reasons for such actions.  The impulse to censor books or reading lists flows from theology that is askew.  Pietism does not want eyes or mind sullied by anything “objectionable.” The problem is, we are born sinful.  Our minds and senses will be sullied by objectionable content because we are corrupt.  “Cleaning up” books to prevent children from encountering certain bits is likely to backfire, making those parts so tantalizing that the sinful nature is inflamed with curiosity and that those evils become much more powerful when encountered later. 

This does not mean we should feed our sinful senses and minds with perverse content, but it does mean that a hermetically-sealed literary existence will not keep us pure.  Rather, we need inoculation—controlled doses that teach us how to deal with sin.  This requires judicious choices about when a child will encounter certain books. I have no problem reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm with my preteen students, but I would not recommend his 1984 with its explicit sexual content until late high school at the earliest.  In other cases, high-quality adaptations serve younger children well, particularly as an introduction to classics which are worthy of a lifetime of re-reading.

The crucial factor in cultivating a discerning young reader is the guidance of a discerning adult reader. As parents or teachers, we are the models of virtue for our children. Young readers are often very receptive to the book recommendations of adults they admire, and reading a book that elicited enthusiastic memories from a beloved adult tangibly brings children closer to the maturity they long for.

When teaching my middle school students, I frequently share a brief memory of the first time I read a certain literature book or think aloud about how I keep finding new insights with each re-reading.  Often it is just a few words—especially when beginning or ending books—that guide my students in assessing what is good, true, and beautiful (and what is not) in their reading. Providing explicit judgment about vice and virtue in fiction is helpful. Unduly concentrating on the objectionable parts is not. 

For instance, when I read Fahrenheit 451 with my seventh and eighth graders, I tell them before we start that there is a lot of profanity in it and mention that this might show us something about the character of the various people in that society.  When we read it aloud, we mostly skip over the cursing.  They are all reading along and know it is there, but the mutual sense that it is not comfortable for us to speak those words provides guidance in terms of what we should emulate. At some point, one of my students will often note the emptiness not only of the speech of these characters but of their lives, which is precisely the point that would be dulled by a censored version of the book.

Reading at its best is a continual self-assessment. Every character we encounter should make us think, “Do I want to be like that?” Every situation should make us ask, “How would I act?” Perfect little blank slates might be improved by reading only about faultless characters, but little sinners must learn to recognize the evil in their natural inclinations. Because we are sinners, we need to see not only good characters and choices but also evil ones. As young readers, we will easily condemn the evil and believe that we would never do that ourselves. As we mature, we will all too often be convicted by the vices that we see are our own.

Children who encounter sinful human nature in their stories are far better fortified against it than those whose books contain only whitewashed versions of humanity. Indeed, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Rom. 7:7). Moreover, by seeing, recognizing, and naming vice for what it is, children actually grow in their love of what is good.

This past school year I was reading a children’s version of the Iliad to some third graders.  We reached the point at which Paris runs off with Helen, and as what was happening dawned upon them, one child exclaimed, completely unprompted:  “They are breaking a commandment!”  This realization made them not only hold Paris in a certain contempt for his selfish, cowardly ways, but also by contrast admire Hector for his brave, selfless sacrifice.

In the clear light of Storyland, virtue and vice shine brighter than in the shadowy valleys of everyday life. With guidance, the travels there mold young children to recognize vice so that they may avoid it and virtue so that they may embrace it. I can imagine nothing better, which is why I will continue to guide my students in their literary travels rather than censor their books and send them off through the woods alone.


Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.


  1. Heather, I am intrigued by your comment about children being sinners rather than blank slates and what that might mean for how we educate children- especially as many schools follow the philosophies of John Locke. Do you have any reading suggestions or thoughts for someone interested in delving into this more?

  2. Well, I am tempted just to tell you to read Luther's Small Catechism and then move on to the Book of Concord! You might explore around the website of the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education (www.ccle.org), although I have not looked there recently to see what applicable articles or resources to recommend more specifically. I will think further and let you know if I come up with other ideas.

    Despite the lack of resources (so far as I know) that deal specifically with the topic, I will say that I believe proper understanding of the nature of children is the foundation of a proper philosophy of education. This is a perfect example of how theology is always practical! Knowing that children have original sin shapes everything about how I run my classroom because I understand my students' need for both the Law and the Gospel.

  3. So true ... Do you want to come teach at our school?

  4. I keep running into pietistic insistence that we should only read and watch things that qualify under the Phil. 4:8 criteria. I maintain that St. Paul did not write "think ONLY about these things." He was emphasizing that we DO need to think about them -- we need to make a point to think about good, true, wholesome things. Not that they're all we can think about. If we don't ever read anything where anyone does anything wrong, how are we going to learn about things like consequences? (And, as you pointed out, the Bible contains plenty of lessons for us about people who didn't behave in a God-pleasing way.)

    I myself try to weigh what I read and watch, both myself and to/with my children, in the light of Phil. 4:8 -- marking instances where what happens does NOT reflect God's values, and also remarking about the places where it does.


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