Should parents monitor and control their kids’ reading?

Why This Topic is On My Mind

Since I’ve been writing The Lois Level, I’ve participated in many teacher and parent groups online. I also spend time browsing books with the general public. First and foremost, I try to interact with books as much as possible as a reader rather than a book professional.

There have been times when I had to catch my breath because of the things I hear well-meaning parents say to children…or read online…because of the lack of choice some kids have when it comes to reading. I know the parents are trying to protect their kids, but what I see is adults snuffing the joy out of what has always been one of the greatest pleasures in my life: books and reading.

Books are a place where parents can let go with a minimum of risk.

A Word of Caution for Educators

Do note that this article is specifically about parents. What is or is not taught in school is a different thing, and as a teacher and educator, I always err on the side of caution. In a class, you are always dealing with a range of maturity levels and backgrounds, and some kids have issues that may be triggered by certain books.

As an educator, the level of caution I use is normally based on the depth of the intended study. If a student wants a book for individual reading, if I have a question about the content of the book, I’ll ask for a note from home. Similarly, there are many books in school libraries I wouldn’t consider for class study on the basis of content. When you teach a book, you have to discuss the issues in the book, and there are many times it’s just too much.

This article is specifically about parents and guardians.

Media in the Olden Days (20th Century)

When I was growing up, it seems there was hardly any media.  Where I lived, we had six T.V. stations, When I was really young, five. Two of them were totally local (one was the beginning of the Christian Broadcasting Network), three were local affiliates of the national networks, and we had a PBS station.  So everything was closely mediated, first by the national networks and even more so because everything was filtered through local stations.  Anything that the national networks showed that was considered “too much” for us in Virginia wasn’t shown locally.  

When T.V. was specialized at all, it was broken up by the time of day: daytime T.V. had game shows and soap operas for moms and other people at home during the day (game shows for retirees?), news shows bookended the workday, “family shows” came on during the early evening and more adult content (but not “adult” content) came on later, when all good little children were asleep.

 When I was in high school, cable television arrived.  So yeah, then we had 30 channels. Excitement.  For me, the biggest change is that MTV introduced me to some artists that they didn’t play on the radio.  When I hear certain songs, I can still see the video of it playing in my head, and there are some songs I still like because I liked the video.  It was also memorable to me that some of them came from the UK and occasionally other European countries, so that was my first real “window” into other countries.  Truly, what I knew about the world before then was mostly based on what I could read and imagine.

Until cable came, we only saw movies in the movie theatre or sometimes, edited versions that came on T.V.  I didn’t see a PG movie until I was 11.  My mom finally took me to see Grease because it was so popular at school, and I just about died of embarrassment during the part where Rizzo thought she was pregnant.

And then at some point, we got VHS videos in the mix, too. 

So yeah, things are a lot different now.  My daughter was born in 1994, which meant she had access to lots of different things on T.V. if I didn’t monitor her, but thank goodness social media and streaming hadn’t come along yet. 

So I get it.  It’s a stressful world out there.  When you’re raising kids, a lot can go wrong.

But going back to when I was a kid…despite all the restrictions on what I saw and heard, I did actually pretty much get to read what I wanted to. 

A Brief History of a Reader

 I was let loose in the Children’s Room at the library at least once a week.  I remember my mom taking me when I was little, and still in picture books, but once I moved into chapter books, I wandered around in there on my own.  At first, I was confused and thought that the books went from easy to hard, starting with the first shelf next to the picture books, but eventually I figured it out.  

I read all kinds of things.  Yes, they were all kids books, but The Outsiders was in there too (no teen section in those days). I remember finding that and not really knowing what it was about.  I probably read that at around age 10.  Did I get it all?  No, but I got the gist of it. Did it hurt me in any way? I don’t think so. I didn’t go start a gang or anything.

 I still remember where that and other books were in the library because I read them more than once.

When I was about 7, the first mall that was really near my house opened up, and it was then I that I saw my first bookstore!!  Whoo hoo!  So at Waldenbooks, which was a pretty small store back in those days, I got the Laura Ingalls books (after getting the first one from the Scholastic Book Club at school) and plenty of others of those wide paperbacks.


As I moved in the Young Adult books, Walden’s became more important because the library didn’t really have YA’s in those days.  Remember I said that The Outsiders was in the children’s room…so apparently the YA books that did exist were mixed in with the children’s books, and you know even me as a book freak got to an age where I didn’t want to go into the Children’s Room.


When we went to the bookstore, I was usually sent off to browse on my own because my mom wanted to browse stuff she wanted to read.  I know she really didn’t want me in the adult section because some of the covers of the adult books back in those days were pretty over the top…when I read a book about horror classics during that time period, I remembered that…and remember I said the stores were small, so even if she didn’t read that stuff (she didn’t), it might be close by.

Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnik

This stop was the highlight of every trip to the mall for me…click on the photo for a post from Mall Walkers.net about the history of Waldenbooks.

This stop was the highlight of every trip to the mall for me…click on the photo for a post from Mall Walkers.net about the history of Waldenbooks.

Lizzie Skurnik’s Shelf Discovery is a wonderful homage to those of us who grew up reading paperbacks from Waldens. I was shocked that our reading tastes (mine and Skurnik’s) were so similar until I remembered the size of the YA section in those days.

 So yeah, she wanted me in the Children’s or YA section to keep me away from the bad stuff, but that also meant that she didn’t worry about what I was going to find in Children’s or YA.  I was almost always allowed to get a book everytime I went to the mall.  I remember that she did look at my choices.  Only once, when I wanted a particularly racy book by YA standards, did she say I could get it if she read it first.  I said, “No thanks”: I think I was a little embarrassed (I knew I was pushing it because it had some sex stuff in it) but also what’s the point of getting a new book if I had to wait for her to read it?  Who knew how long that would take?

So what did I do?  I waited until I found it either in the school or public library.  She didn’t monitor those. 

This full-color book shows exactly what my mom was trying to protect me from. Read The Lois Level’s Gen X Horror Paperbacks: How did any of us survive the 80’s? to see some of the highlights and be glad this stuff is mostly gone!

 Things got a little trickier as I started to outgrow the YA books, but I was reading Flowers in the Attic and Judith Krantz just like everyone else in the early 80’s.  The only thing I had to sneak was a copy of The Amityville Horror that my 7th grade English teacher thought was important and loaned me for some reason…I have no idea why…but I knew anything having to do with the occult was off limits in my house.  I remember sneak reading it in the middle of our small living room, made smaller because it was Christmastime and the tree was up…I was kind of scared to read it in my room alone, but I had to hide it because I would get into trouble & I also didn’t want my teacher to get into trouble…she might not loan me any more books if that happened!  And anyway, I knew I was really the one who should have said, “No thanks. My parents don’t allow that.”  I knew.


I have no shame when it comes to books.





Rebellion Rationalized

If you’ve read the first part of this column, I know you’re feeling confused right now because my sorry little tale seems more about why children’s reading should be controlled rather than not.

Did you get it?

But I got my punishment.

Because I scared myself & then I couldn’t run to my parents without admitting to being the little sneak and lier (by omission) that I was.

You might read my narrative and think, “See?  I can’t trust my kid not to rot out her brain.”  But did my brain get rotted?  I don’t think so. 

And I was “misbehaving” right in the middle of the living room, not out in some teenager’s car.

Think about that.

And don’t forget that by the time I started pulling this stuff, I was 12 or 13. What were YOU doing at that age?

If it was really bad, and you are determined not to let your kids do anything wrong, let me tell you, when they become teenagers, they are going to sneak something. They just are. It’s a developmental stage. And if you are too overbearing on the small stuff, they are going to do something you really don’t want.

But on the other hand, they do need to feel you care…so go ahead and nag…but don’t really try to control every thought.

It’s a fine line.

That’s one reason I think books are a safe rebellion.

Make up is another one by the way. As much as I hated my daughter’s heavy eyeliner stage, I inwardly signed with relief because I could see she was using that (rather than something actually dangerous) to rebel.

A Reader’s Rationale

Ok, but if you’r still not convinced, consider this: 

At the same time I was sneaking the sexy young adult book from wherever I finally found it, I was probably the only person reading ALL of the Sunday School magazines the church subscribed to and gave us for free.  I would go get the magazines from the other Sunday School rooms when no one was around (my parents volunteered a lot so I got the Sunday School really early).  I even read the adult Sunday School magazines…I would read anything, and where ever I was, I knew how to get my “fix”.  I probably shouldn’t have been helping myself to any of it, but at least I nothing published by the Baptist Book Store was rotting my brain. 

And the point is that I wasn’t on a mad rush to read only dirty stuff. 

Readers read.  That’s how we learn.

Consider the advantage of not needing to learn about EVERYTHING through experience. 

But because I read so many things so many times, and went back to reread them when I was an adult and became a teacher, I realized exactly how much I was missing the first time through.  It seems that words on a page can only do so much if the experience (professionally, educators call it “schema”) isn’t there.

The fact is that you can only understand so much from description if  you don’t have the experience to back it up.  You’re going to make mistakes.  I also simply missed a lot of references. 

And information you can’t understand gets filtered out most of the time. The brain can only handle so much.

Also, reading researchers have learned that most good readers visualize, and understanding (comprehension) suffers significantly when visualization is lost.

But the reverse is also true.

If you see a movie or a T.V. show that you’re not ready for, those images can get into your brain and won’t leave.  That can be bad.  

Books, however, rely on the imagination to the extent that it’s really hard to do too much damage. 

I remember going to see A Clockwork Orange when I was a freshman in college.  Now of course by the time I was 18 I had finally gotten to see my fill of PG and even R (Perish the thought) movies, but I was not prepared for the violence in A Clockwork Orange at all.  As it so happens, at the time I was familiar with the movie because we had the soundtrack at home.  The reason we had the soundtrack is because it had “Pomp and Circumtance” (the graduation processional), and my mom ran a little kindergarten for a couple of years, that ended with a little graduation ceremony.

Whoa! Mom! That was the only place you could find that song??

The point is that I was still pretty sheltered, and also you know they can get away with a lot more violence in an “art” movie (I should have been going to see slasher films with my high school friends instead).  I had little flashbacks about that movie for several days after, and thinking about it still freaks me out.  

A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick

Later, I read the book, and even though I had the images from the movie in my head, it didn’t upset me nearly as much.  And of course, if something really awful happens in a book, you can always skim that part.

Even still, reading ABOUT something is a lot less scary than seeing it.

 In another example, when I heard of the 9-11 attacks in 2001, I heard it on the radio, and since my mind could not take in what I was hearing, I created a visual in my head that was far less disturbing…honestly, I thought a wing had nicked the building or something.  I didn’t realize until I got home and saw the T.V. what had happened.  My brain just couldn’t process what I heard.  I’ll bet the newscaster couldn’t either, and which meant the report wasn’t very clear; it was on a station that normally didn’t do news.


So books are words, and they are printed words.  We know that people don’t comprehend reading well in general when they don’t picture what they read, and the fact is that if you don’t have the experience (“schema”) that the author assumes you have, you probably are going to miss a lot.

 Generally, when people read something for which they don’t have schema enough, the either get frustrated and give up, or they misinterpret it.  I realize as an adult that one reason I thought I was “bored” by books set in certain countries is because I just couldn’t picture things that were too different from my own experience well enough.  Now I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world, and of course I can look up whatever I want to see online too.

So, getting back to the question, should you control what my kids read?

I would say, “This is an area where you can give your kids some autonomy.”  Let them alone.  Let them explore their interests.  Respect their privacy enough to let them venture out on their own, and let’s be honest, answer their questions, without having to clear everything through you.

Look, if they respect you, there are going to be some things they hold back to keep their respect. Let them have a safe, private avenue to figure this stuff out.

So what would you prefer?  A kid who is scared by what is going on in her own mind because she read a book she shouldn’t, or a kid who has to go experience it?

And no, reading about something doesn’t lead to wanting to experience it necessarily. I went through a whole stage of reading about North Korea, and I DO NOT want to go there. 

I’m saying it’s more important to watch the movies that your kids watch, and let the books slide. 

Unless, unless…there is always the tactic of making a big fuss about not wanting your teenager to read to make them read more.  That can work.

Free Resource

Whatever your decision about this issue, check out Common Sense Media. They offer age based reviews of a variety of media so that you can make informed decisions. You can also find media and digital literacy curricula for your kids. Common Sense Media is a nonprofit, so all resources are free, and ad free!

About the Cover Photo

Exploring the interactive mind game, The Quetzal. 1 October 2011 Film Centre from Toronto, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Exploring the interactive mind game, The Quetzal. 1 October 2011

Film Centre from Toronto, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Don’t get excited…this is just a game…not the future of parenting. You need to learn to trust your kids about some things at some point or they will never become functioning adults!

Do you monitor what your kids read? Why or why not?

Did your parents monitor yours?