|Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, one of the most admirable characters in literature
A study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirms what parents and educators have know for centuries: you are deeply shaped by the books you read. The study does shed light on the psychological changes that happen when one is reading and being throughly immersed in the world of a fictional character. Turns out your behavior and thought process will mimic that of your favorite characters! The study also suggests that the more strongly you identify with a character, the more your behavior will change. One of the researches stated that the change may even be longterm: “If you’ve got a deep connection with the characters, it can have a lasting impact, it can inspire you to re-read something. And then the impact can be strengthened over time.”
In many ways I am sure that this is not surprising to anyone but I do think it can give one pause. Just as watching television can chip away at our contentment the books we read can be negative influences in our lives. As adults we should also be modeling good choices to the children in our lives. Our reading can reflect the baser aspects of our fallen nature, or it can serve to elevate our thoughts and turn us toward that which is good, true, and beautiful.
As we have talked so much about raising readers, we also want to ensure that our children love reading those books that emulate the character traits we would like to see in their lives. It isn't enough to say "At least she's reading." We need to be aware of what she's reading. Now, as with all things, there is something to be said for moderation. I went through a stage in my tween years where I really enjoyed reading books from The Babysitter's Club. My mom could not understand the appeal but she didn't forbid me to read them. And I think that was a wise decision. She provided a compromise in which for each classic or historical title I read, I was allowed one Babysitter's Club. This was perfect for me. In my young mind there was nothing morally corrupting about The Babysitter's Club, but my mom knew that a steady diet of books about semi-discontented teen girls who were obsessed with clothing and babysitting jobs may lead to similar behavior in me. By ensuring that I was also exposed to books of a loftier morality, she not only mitigated the possible negative effects of my guilty pleasure, she saw to it that my forming literary tastes were not simply content to settle for mind candy.
A broad exposure to great literature will also provide your children with a standard by which they can judge the characters they encounter in the books they read. The diversity of people I encountered in my reading made it more difficult to identify with any of the characters from The Babysitter's Club. After reading about the courageous Kit in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Claudia's scrunchy and candy obsessions started to seem a little silly. As a teen, having encountered the great wisdom of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Elinor Dashwood's selflessness in Sense and Sensibility, and the real and tragic Ann Frank, I was less liable to be sucked in to Holden Caulfield's self-indulgent world in Catcher in the Rye.
There are so many wonderful characters, real and fictional, in the world of literature who are worthy of emulation. What characters have you deeply identified with? Who would you like to introduce your children to? Are there books you just cannot wait to give to your children but are waiting until they are old enough? I would love to hear from you!
And if you're looking for some direction, check out these resources: