Preschool Songs with Catholics and Protestants

When my oldest was a preschooler, my wife Beth took her to a weekly music group at the Catholic church, called “Making Music, Praying Twice.” Yes, Catholics are terrible at branding programs (ever hear of the Catholic “Fortnight for Freedom?”), but there’s a reason for the clunky title. The name refers to a saying attributed to St. Augustine: The one who sings, prays twice.

Is that just a nice-sounding sentiment? Actually, no. It points at a subtle but crucial difference between Catholic and Protestant spirituality. Both can be good, but I think it’s worth looking at them more closely.

Protestants and The World

To show what I mean, let me start with my own Protestant kindergarten church school, where we loved singing the old classic “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” As far as I ever knew, here were the words:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, then your life will surely show it,
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

In verse 2, “Clap your hands” became “Stomp your feet,” verse 3 said to “Shout Amen!”, and then verse 4 rounded out the song with “Do all three!”

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out the song wasn’t originally Christian. In earlier versions of the folk song, the shout was “Hooray!”, not “Amen!”, and there was nothing about “your life” showing anything. The song said, “If you’re happy and you know, and you really wanna show it…”

Why the change? There was nothing offensive in the original song that would stop Christians from singing it. But there’s a long Protestant tradition of bringing secular things into the church by tweaking them to make them explicitly Christian. The biblical word “Amen!” was an easy way to baptize the folk song for us to sing at church school.

All this is fine as far as it goes. I still love that song, which is forever tied up with my affection for my dear friend and minister Tim Lewis, who taught it to us at South MacArthur Church of Christ. Similarly, one of my favorites hymns is the Christianized version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Catholics and The Beautiful

So, how would Catholics do it?

As it turns out, the “Making Music, Praying Twice” program also has “If You’re Happy And You Know it,” alongside a variety of Christian and secular songs and rhymes. The lyrics on that album:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, and you really wanna show it,
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

The second verse is, “If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet.” Among the several other verses is, “If you’re noisy and you know it, shout hooray!”

Now, if I had heard this as a teenager, I would have been irate. Since I only knew the Protestant version of the song, I very likely would have jumped to the conclusion that someone had “taken God out” of the song. I would have had things exactly backwards, which is a good reminder of how easy it is to pick foolish fights when we don’t understand history and culture.

But back to the point, what are the Catholics doing here? Are they not familiar with the Christian version of the song? Why not just shout “Amen!” like we Protestants did in church school?

The answer is in the old saying: The one who sings, prays twice, which points at a core principle of Catholic Spirituality: Everything beautiful and true and good is from God. Anything that is truly beautiful––a song, a novel, a sculpture, a poem, a deed––already glorifies God. Adding Christian words to an already-beautiful song is unnecessary, and it risks marring the beauty of what was already there, while implying judgment on the original as somehow inadequate because of not naming God explicitly.

Folk songs always grow and change, so it’s not as if Protestants are trying to touch up the Mona Lisa when we shout “Amen!” On the other hand, consider the evangelical adaption of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which you can find on youtube if you’re interested. Cohen’s song is one of the great works of art of our day. It’s spiritual, but in a dark and complex and even slightly profane way if you read all the verses. I wouldn’t blame a Christian for not wanting to embrace it fully, though as a Christian I still find it a worthy song. But either way, it wasn’t written for church, and in my opinion it shouldn’t be adapted for church.

When we consider what to Christianize, our choices send a crucial message to our kids, about how we see the world. Should we should fully embrace the secular world whenever possible, then set ourselves apart only at key points of real difference? Or should we always look for ways to be more explicitly Christian, lest we forget and slip into secularism? I can quote Bible verses and Christian tradition on both sides of that debate, but this isn’t the place to get into theological weeds.

My own view, as I’ve written here before, is that trying to Christianize everything just makes it easier to think we’re following Christian values, whether we are or not, and that Christians have plenty to learn from secular values in any case. So I approach this with a “small-c” catholic method: (1) Embrace everything beautiful in the world, free from judgment, wherever possible; (2) Give my kids plenty of beautiful Christian works to enjoy as well; (3) If something is beautiful but problematic, use my best discretion.

Either way, as parents it’s worth being intentional: What are our values and what message do we want to send?

Busy Bag Life Hack

I was really really tired of cleaning up crayons. My Presbyterian church has a little tree at the entrance to the sanctuary with busy bags full of little coloring books and crayons, and we used to grab three or four of them on the way into Sunday morning worship. It’s a simple and inexpensive way for a church to help families keep young kids occupied and quiet during sermons.

But with my four kids, it still felt like a lot of work. My kids sat on the pew in heaps of crayons, looking for a certain color and then complaining that a sibling would’t share it. They would snap crayons in half. They would color on the oak pews. They would flip through the coloring books and color their favorites first, leaving the books with too many un-colored pages to throw away, but enough colored pages that my kids had trouble finding one they wanted to use. And then at the end of worship, we had to pick up the shrapnel, figure out what to throw away, and load everything useful back into the busy bags––ideally with an even mix of crayons in each bag––for future weeks.

Keep it Simple

Last fall, I was thinking about when I was a kid, how my dad always kept a folded sheet of blank paper in his Bible when we went to church. He would give me that paper along with a mechanical pencil during the sermon, so I could draw or doodle. Building from that, I finally figured out how to streamline the whole scenario for my kids, and it’s been a godsend.

I found a small zipper bag lying around the house, bought a pack of ten 4×6 white memo pads, grabbed a handful of pencils nubs, threw some pink eraser caps on them (Paper Mate arrowhead are the best by far), and threw the whole thing into my car. Now I carry that bag into church with me for my kids’ busy bag.

Problems solved:

  • Less distraction: everyone gets one pencil, everyone gets the same kind of paper, no one has anything to argue about.
  • Minimal waste: short pencils are harder to break than crayons, and I require my kids to use front and back of one sheet before they move to the next. If they don’t like what they did on a sheet, it’s only a 4×6 (not an 8.5×11) that gets thrown away.
  • Easy cleanup: at the end, I just pick up 4 or 5 pencils, pile the used sheets into one pile to recycle, and tuck everything else back into the pouch for next week.

This makes church so much easier for me that I can’t imagine going back to the old busy bags. And since simple drawing doesn’t really use the language portion of the mind, my kids can often still pick up some of what’s being said at church, even if they’re not quite ready to give their full attention.

(As an aside, we also go to Saturday vigil Mass every week, and we don’t use the busy bags there. The Catholic context is a bit different, as the more formally regimented liturgy leaves busy bags somewhat out of place. Also, the sermons are shorter, and the Mass has a number of responses that the kids can memorize and more easily participate in each week. In any event, I’m fine with my kids getting two different types of experiences–one where they need a bit more self-control, and another where they get a bit of help from the busy bags.)

The Habit of Simplicity

Along with the convenience for me, there’s another point about this simple busy bag that I value for my kids’ formation. Crayons are great, and we certainly have a heap of them for our craft table at home. But there’s a lot of power in learning the skill of being content with something simple as well. A kid with a pencil and white paper has great options: they can draw, write, or play a game, but they have to figure out how to do it themselves.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers knew this: if you build your appetites around things that are good but also simple, you set yourself up for a much easier road to happiness. A pack of 64 different-colored crayons would have been a gift fit for royalty a thousand years ago, and I’m glad my kids have them. But in our society, kids aren’t going to learn habits of simplicity unless we foster them deliberately.

For that little half hour window on Sunday mornings, my kids practice building a skill and a habit that will serve them throughout life: being content with the very basics. All they need is a pencil, a blank sheet, and their imagination.

Stories, Imagination, and Black History

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of when she arrived at her U.S. college from Nigeria, and her American roommate was surprised that Adichie knew how to use a stove. The roommate commented on how good Adichie’s English was, not realizing that English is the official language of Nigeria. When she asked to hear her “tribal music,” Adichie pulled out a Mariah Carey album.

Adichie says this series of exchanges happened because the roommate only knew a “single story” about Africa. When we only hear one kind of story about a group of people, we start to assume they’re all the same–we learn a stereotype. The roommate had heard one set of stories about Africa, apparently none of them about middle-class Black people there. This seems to have left her imagination woefully lacking about who her new roommate might be.

As I teach my kids during Black History Month, it strikes me how important stories are to the shaping of imagination. Looking around, my kids are going to see the huge economic and social gaps that our society has intentionally built between Black people and white people, and they’re going to hear the negative stereotypes that appear in so many books and movies. To get beyond this toxic “single story,” my kids need to hear lots of different kinds of stories. Some might be:

  1. Stories of Oppression: The inequalities are real, and kids need to know where they came from.
  2. Stories of Liberation: Enslaved people who resisted, emancipationists, Black Revolutionary War soldiers, civil rights leaders and marchers, and the like. If you’ve never heard, for instance, the story of how an enslaved woman named MumBet hired an attorney and wound up freeing all the slaves in Massachusetts, it’s worth a read.
  3. Other Positive Stories: Black scientists, authors, business people, athletes, artists, and others who have made important contributions. Many of these will of course be stories of racial justice as well.
  4. Ordinary stories: I want to include these stories to help my kids escape the assumption that anyone needs to somehow prove themself to be especially good in order to be viewed as an “exception” to racist stereotypes.

Classical homeschooling already uses so many stories that the adjustment is not difficult. After all, the point of “classical” is not that something is old, but that it is excellent. I read my kids Robert Louis Stevenson and Beatrix Potter, but I also read them Langston Hughes poems and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

A lot of this is still aspirational, as I’m realizing that all of our read-aloud bedtime novels the past two years have been by white or Asian authors. On a road trip last year we did listen to Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, a solid adventure story built upon powerful and challenging messages about race and racism. Since starting this post, I’ve been previewing some more books by Black authors, and I expect I’ll write about some of them in this space as I read them to my kids.

I’m not pretending that stories will solve racial inequality, or that society would be magically cured of racial injustice if every white kid just heard more stories for Black History. As my kids get older, I’ll want to look for opportunities for more active learning to improve policies, social structures, and the like. But being formed by lots of stories helps open up the imagination, and helps us see people––and complicated social problems that affect people––in their complexity, rather than filing them into a stereotype already existing in our brain.

Consider, for example, Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance, which I’m previewing for my kids to read. Johnson’s main characters Candice and Brandon are surprised to find out how much pride their grandparents’ generation takes in the “colored” high school they graduated from in the days before integration. They tell them that the building was old and the textbooks were used, but they had a community with teachers who cared for them, they got a good education there, and they were proud to be a part of it. As a white person it would be easy for me to assume the simplistic story that Black schools before integration were simply inferior, while white schools were simply better. But the truth is more complex: the oppression was real, but so were the achievement, and the pride, and the sense of family.

There will be so much more for my kids to learn. But my hope is that reading to them as they grow, far beyond the “single story,” will set their imaginations free to see clearly, to engage thoughtfully, to choose wisely, and eventually to act justly.

Learning Empathy with Ramona

“Daddy, what do you have to study to learn to be a teacher?” Beezus asked.

Ramona had been wondering the same thing. Her father knew how to read and do arithmetic. He also knew about Oregon pioneers and about two pints making one quart.

Mr. Quimby wiped a plate and stacked it in the cupboard. “I’m taking an art course because I want to teach art. And I’ll study child development––”

Ramona interrupted. “What’s child development?”

“How kids grow,” answered her father.

Why does anyone have to go to school to study a thing like that? wondered Ramona. All her life she had been told that the way to grow was to eat good food, usually food she did not like, and get plenty of sleep, usually when she had more interesting things to do than go to bed.

When I was younger, I was told that sympathy means feeling pain for someone, while empathy means feeling someone’s pain with them. As a hospital staff chaplain I was trained to think of empathy as something very different, something much more useful.

It’s true that we should feel bad when we see others suffering, but the idea that we can get close enough to fully feel their pain––apart from maybe our dearest loved ones––is absurd, and it would be unhealthy if we could do it. A hospital chaplain who attempted that would quickly turn into a wreck, and wouldn’t be much help to their patients. When you’re terrified about a diagnosis, for example, you don’t want to see terror in the eyes of your chaplain.

One great insight of modern chaplaincy is that people who are suffering do not need someone who will feel their pain, but rather someone who sees their pain. Not “I know how you feel,” but “I’m doing my best to listen and learn how you feel.”

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona

A lot of people have pointed out that one great thing about fiction is that it helps you learn empathy of this kind: not to suffer with the characters, but to see who they are, and start to understand how they see the world.

This is the remarkable thing about the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, who died last year at age 104. When we read her books, we see the world through a young child’s eyes. Ramona’s viewpoint is different than an adult’s would be, but at the same time we can understand it. That is the core of empathy.

But the strength of the books isn’t just that we see the world through the main character’s eyes, which most novels do. YA fiction is especially good at showing us the world through the eyes of adolescents. But it seems to me that chidren’s authors usually put their characters through extraordinary adventures to drive the interest of the book. Beverly Cleary’s genius was to follow the school-age girl Ramona through completely ordinary years of her life (often called “slice of life” writing) and find the interest in the way Ramona experienced it.

Cleary took mundane episode and made them fascinating–and charming–by the way she showed them to us through Ramona’s eyes. Even when extraordinary things happen, like Ramona crashing through an attic floor and dangling halfway into the dining room below, we see Ramona’s embarrassment with her friend seeing her underwear. A lazier book might have just focused on Romana being frightened, or worried about getting in trouble; Clearly moves past that to the more complicated or surprising feelings a real child might have. The books are perfect read-alouds for a family, because the kids get to see a character who thinks like them, and parents are reminded how their own kids might see the world.

Formation through Fiction

Reading is a great skill, but it’s best when it’s also formative, and habit-building. Great books are the ones that avoid stereotypes and cliches, but not just because those things might be objectionable in the abstract. Reading great books helps kids build the habit of seeing complex characters for who they are, which forms our kids to also see complex people in real life for who they are, not for who we’d assume they are. We don’t read Ramona and say, “Now I know how a child thinks.” We read Ramona and say, “Now I know how to pay attention so I can learn better how each child I meet is seeing the world.” That is empathy.

The Cat in the Hat

“Have no fear, little fish,”
Said the Cat in the Hat.
“These Things are good Things.”
And he gave them a pat.

“They are tame. Oh, so tame!
They have come here to play.
They will give you some fun
On this wet, wet, wet day.”

For my money, The Cat in the Hat is still one of the best for doing daily practice with an early reader. My six-year-old is past Bob Books, but he can get frustrated if he has to read too many big words.

Dr. Seuss did a great job here not only of writing a charming story that adults can enjoy along with their kids, but also of using bite-sized words that early readers can handle. Just look at the quote above: only one word in the eight lines is more than a single syllable. That’s perfect for helping my six-year-old gain confidence while he starts to move on to bigger words, and it gives the book a playfully choppy rhythm that suits the story.

Also, the book is 60 pages long. We started out doing two spreads a day, then moved to three, so that was good for more than ten days of reading practice before I have to choose what to read next.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

This is the first of a series by Maryrose Wood. Beth read these to our kids a few years ago, and I’m repeating them now that my two youngest are old enough to enjoy it. I expect that any parent with several children can relate to the story of a young governess tasked with forming gradeschool children who have spent the past few years being raised by wolves.

Along with being playful and well-written, this book is a good old-fashioned moral tale in the spirit of Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Maybe a little romantic, but I’ve always been a sucker for that type of thing. Anyway, the irreverent humor of the wolf-raised children takes the edge off of the sentimentality.

Like Lemony Snicket, Wood likes to introduce a new vocabulary word or expression by using it in the course of a sentence and then taking a lengthy rabbit-chasing aside to explain what it means. I find her asides more charming than’s Snicket’s, which are usually snarky and can be a bit grating.

Looking at the big picture, three great moral themes from the book jump out at me:

Beauty. When Penelope Lumley first meets the three “Incorrigible” children, they are huddled in a barn under blankets, howling at her for intruding. What does Penelope do? She recites to them a passage from her favorite chapter book, and by the end of the passage the children are curled up at her feet. As “Lumawoo” gets them cleaned up and starts their education, beauty takes center stage. Some of their work involves the nuts and bolts of education, of course. But at the same time, she starts reading them Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus, which is far above their heads. But beautiful language is beautiful language, and by the end of the book the kids make the poem their own in a delightful way.

Pluck. Penelope’s defining trait is the habit of rolling with the punches, what people these days call resiliency, but what her character knows as pluck. This is one of those virtues that can be misused by comfortable people to tell the less fortunate they should just gut through their troubles, but it remains a great virtue nonetheless. Most people’s lives require a good bit of rolling with the punches.

Social Consciousness. Like a lot of Dickens, the book celebrates classical virtues and social justice at the same time. Penelope’s empathy for those around her contrasts with “nobles” in the story who treat people like objects and never trouble to wonder what it might be like to be someone else. Penelope’s strength in the face of every storm contrasts with the cowardice of Lady Constance who weathers the onslaught of life only by hiding behind her money and servants, and Lord Ashton who avoids real life by spending all his time with the boys at “the club.”

Aside from its message, the book is a fun mystery and coming-of-age story as well. It was a delight to read aloud, and the series of six books means I have a reliably fun and literary chapter to read every night for months to come.

Toys! Toys! Toys!

In the wake of Christmas, I want to offer my philosophy of toys. I know that might sound ridiculous, but how our kids grow to find their fun will have a lot to do with how they find happiness, and what kind of people they will be.

Following Aristotle’s way of thinking, let’s divide toys into categories of what purposes they serve–what kids use them for. If we start there, it gives us a better chance of picking the toys that will help get us and our kids where we want to go. To keep it simple, I’ll stick with toys, not games (with set rules) or crafts (with instructions).

The short answer, of course, is that kids play with toys to have fun. But the way kids use toys gets them to that goal in different ways. I see four main purposes that kids play with toys for:

  1. To help them tell a story.
  2. To help them be active.
  3. To help them learn something.
  4. To amuse or thrill them.

It’s no accident that I use the word “help” with the first three, while the fourth one is something that toys do to kids. Let me show my cards: I listed these in order of importance, and I think the first three are all a lot better than the last one, because they help kids make fun for themselves rather than handing them fun on a platter. Most toys fit more than one category, but the categories give us a place to start. Consider some different toys, listed generally from my favorite to least favorite kinds:

  • Dolls & stuffed animals: Perfect for inspiring kids to tell stories, as they get their dolls and animals together to talk to each other and do things. Or a kid might take a doll outside with them for an active adventure story.
  • Legos: Alongside being beautiful objects to hold, Legos have lots of purposes. When kids start by building the kit, they learn to follow directions and build spatial skills. Then my kids usually pick their favorite minifigure characters, or else build their own animal or robot characters, and start telling stories. For bigger ships and buildings, or things with moving parts, kids naturally learn to exercise their problem-solving and engineering skills.
  • Dress-up: Kids put on an outfit and instantly start telling active stories.
  • Cardboard boxes, paper, and tape: Kids figure out pretty quickly how to make their own toys when given the chance. They learn to draw, to cut, to problem-solve. Downside is a messy house with paper scraps everywhere, but the payoff is great.
  • Weapons: Swords have been good inspiration for my kids to run around and be active. They lead to more tears than I’d prefer, but on the bright side they help kids learn to take small risks. I draw the line at buying toy guns that shoot real darts: they cross farther into the “thrill” category, and in any case I just don’t want to spend my days picking up nerf bullets from every surface in the house.
  • Pogo balls, etc.: These seem like a great idea for active play, but my kids don’t end up using them that much. They’d rather be wrestling on the living room floor or running around the yard with sticks.
  • Electronics: I love my devices, but I try to keep them away from my kids. Lots of devices include ways that kids can learn if they want to, but honestly my kids seem to spend most of their time just being amused by pressing buttons and seeing what happens.

There’s not a lot that I totally forbid. But to me, amusement toys are the candy of the toy world, fine to enjoy from time to time but not a great idea for everyday consumption. I’m good with my kids racing their friends’ RC cars when they have them outside, but I don’t really want to own any of them.

None of this means I want my kids to play with “learning” toys all day. Have you every heard the joke that the only two bad things about futons are that they don’t make very good sofas, and they don’t make very good beds? Toys are for fun, first and foremost. I would much rather my kids have fun making their stuffed animals talk to each other or fight each other–which they do all the time–than using an electronic toy that tries to teach them language arts. (Alternatively, I absolutely let my daughter use the duolingo ipod app. But that’s an excellent learning app that happens to be fun, as opposed to a game that creates the illusion of teaching something.)

A lot of people have said this, but it’s totally true: kids are made to find ways to play on their own. The only way to keep a kid from coming up with new ways to have fun is to give them too much time with toys that feed them fun that has already been created by someone else.

I disappointed several family members this Christmas when I asked them not to give the presents they wanted to give. But if we come back to the question of formation, it’s totally worth it. My kids can spend their days with toys that are made for amusement, which will form them more and more into people who will always be looking for the next thing to amuse or thrill them. Or they can spend their days with toys that help them make their own fun, which is an underrated skill they’ll take wherever they go. When given the choice between the two, for me it’s no contest.

Moon Fever

Happy Moon Landing Day! Since the 50th anniversary two years ago, this has become something of a holiday in our house, just a great chance to celebrate adventure, and science, and America, and beauty, and achievement, all rolled up into one spectacular event.

My apologies up front that a lot of what we do is from things we’ve bought, rather than creative fun like the cut-out one of my kids made for the fridge in the picture above. But I’m not drawing money from links or anything, this is just what we do.

• For the third year in a row, we’re watch the Apollo 11 documentary from 2019. This was really nicely done. Instead of adding voiceover in a vain attempt to say how amazing the mission was, they only used footage and narration from 1969, with some modern mood music. It moves me every time I see it. My kids are captivated up through the launch about halfway through, but then their interest wanes. Today we took a break at the halfway mark, and we’ll come back to it later.

The Lego Saturn V!

• As we often do throughout the year, we read My Little Golden Book of The First Moon Landing. This is charming, has a good mix of story and science, and is the biggest reason my kids know the difference between the Saturn V, the Columbia, and the Eagle, and the different mission roles of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. My 3-year-old likes the book, and it holds interest for the bigger kids too.

• Last year for Christmas, I asked my folks for the Lego Saturn V model. It is beautiful, has cool inner pieces that are fun to put together, and it’s a reasonable price for Legos. Delightfully, it comes apart in the “stages” of the rocket from the actual mission, and the lunar lander fits inside. Around New Years I reenacted the whole mission for my kids, showing how the back parts of the rocket fell away once they used up their fuel. It’s striking to realize how only one little piece made it back to Earth. After a couple of weeks, I re-bagged the pieces so that I can put them together again in the future, probably on the landing anniversary every couple of years.

My kids also have a couple of smaller plastic toy models of the Saturn V they can play with, and as I write, two of them are building replicas of their own from legos.

• And finally, 30 Rock has a glorious episode where Liz Lemon copes with getting to middle age and realizing she hasn’t married an astronaut, as she always hoped. She finds out her mother had once dated Buzz Aldrin, so she seeks him out only to find him yelling insults at the moon. (You might preview it for content before showing kids.) It’s weird and hilarious and a lot of fun. After I showed the clip to my kids, it’s now commonplace for them to be riding in the car and holler, “Hey, Moon! What are you doing out in the daytime? I walked on your face!”

Hope and Potential

I stumbled across an excellent opinion piece today about kids and potential. Psychologist Steven Hayes tells how his son, who was diagnosed as a little kid with a muscle-weakness disorder called hypotonia, went on to become a MMA Black Belt in high school.

Hayes’s point is not that every kid can become anything they want, but instead that things like diagnosed disorders, standardized tests, and personality types only tell us averages, they don’t magically predict the future. In short, he says, “People are individuals, not averages.”

I’ve written about this before in this post, and I think it’s central for homeschoolers: We shouldn’t be too specific about what we demand that our kids excel at, because some kids just might not be built to get beyond basic proficiency in certain subjects. But as Hayes says, we certainly shouldn’t put limits on what our kids can accomplish, just because they start out slow. It may be they’ll remain slower than average in some subject or other despite all our best efforts, but on the other hand they might surprise us.

For us parents, it also poses a big spiritual question: Can we and our kids live well with the uncertainty of knowing the future is always a mystery? Can we keep a flexible hope for good things, and a healthy sense of purpose for our kids, when unexpected doors open or close because of what our kids find they can or can’t do in the long run? And can we deal with regret when our kids don’t become what we had hoped, even if we may never know how much the failure was rooted in genetics, or in our kid’s character, or in our family life, or in our teaching methods?

What I hope to cultivate each day is a love for the mystery of it all. I’ll look at what my kids seem “naturally” good at, and try to encourage those things, to be sure. And I’ll insist on basic proficiency in key subjects like reading, writing, math, foreign language, music, religion, and physical education. But I’ll also try to keep the pressure light and help them find their own way, so that I can meet my kids over and over again as they continue to become something new.

Big Questions for Little Kids

“You’ll go to the Bad Place,” said Mary Jane Broom. “My mother says anybody who doesn’t go to church or Sunday School will go straight to the Bad Place when they die.”

Eleanor turned pale. “The Bad Place?” she said. “You mean…?”

“I’m not supposed to say that word,” said Mary Jane primly.

Eleanor’s little brother, Edward, swung his lunch box around in a big circle. “She means you’ll go to Hell,” he said.

Quite a start for a gradeschool children’s novel! I confess I was a little nervous reading Jane Langton’s The Astonishing Stereoscope to my kids, but I am glad I did. It does not shy away from big questions, but it keeps them at concrete levels that kids relate to. As the story goes on, Eleanor celebrates Halloween by calling down a curse on her house in a cackling witch voice, only seconds before a family friend falls from their roof and ends up in a coma. Her feelings of guilt, and questions about life and death, launch the story from there.

The Journey

Langton has a very particular perspective. She loves the writings of the American “Transcendentalists,” Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she is not shy about it. But Langton presents her ideas respectfully, and often beautifully.

While the kids who taunt Eleanor at the beginning are bullies, Eleanor finds authentic and caring grown-ups as she visits a Catholic Mass and a Congregationalist Sunday School. (A Catholic Priest presents an oddly Protestant explanation of the Eucharist, but I’ll try not to quibble.) She also takes magical journeys to witness things like Jesus’s Last Supper, a colonial Puritan schoolhouse, and the wonders of nature as small as the atom and as large as the Milky Way. The children have a vision of the evolution of life on earth through the ages, and Eleanor is led to wonder what the ultimate goal of humanity is. She first considers with horror whether it might be the people at the local bank who relish having the power to take her family’s home in foreclosure. But then she concludes instead that the height of humanity is embodied more in her uncle Freddy, who is flawed, but is kind and generous, smart and thoughtful.

The big challenge of this book from a parenting perspective is that I do not ultimately agree with Langton’s perspective. I am a Christian rather than a pluralist like Uncle Freddy, who embodies Transcendentalism in the story. He tells Eleanor his own view of religion at one point, though he does not demand that Eleanor embrace his worldview, instead urging her to continue her journey and find what she believes. For what it’s worth, Eleanor leans toward Christianity in the end. Yet Langton artfully stops short of giving her readers a clear answer about her choice. When the plot is settled, Uncle Freddy asks Eleanor and Eddy if they have decided what religion they will embrace, but they both have already turned their attention toward other concerns of childhood. They are not finished products, but seeds for growth have been planted.

As for my family, I don’t leave it to my kids simply to search for what they believe; rather, I teach them the Christian faith explicitly. But when my kids disagree about the faith, I make it a point to explain gently and leave it at that, rather than demanding they fall into line. They have to attend church whether they want to or not, but I do not presume to control their minds. I do confess that I paused after reading them Uncle Freddy’s advocacy for pluralism, and let my kids know that some people believe that way, but that we hold to the Christian faith. But I didn’t paint Freddy as a villain, as if he’s an enemy of our family and what we stand for. Indeed, a key part of what he said becomes quite true when our kids grow up, whether we parents like it or not: they will ultimately choose what to believe.

Fearless but Not Triumphalistic

A good playground does not expose kids to narrow rope bridges over deadly ravines, but neither does it just have plush paths over flat ground. It has challenging things to climb, low enough that no one’s life is at stake, but high enough to help kids face their fears when things aren’t completely safe.

For a similar reason, I think The Astonishing Stereoscope is a fine part of a Christian education. I always continue to lay a solid foundation of what I hope my kids will believe, but in that context a book like this is a great way to expose them to something that is challenging without being damaging. (Personally, I would worry more about something like the Christmas movie Elf, where “believing” is presented as holding to something we know to be a fairy tale, just because it makes everyone feel good.) Langton gives readers something to consider, but she does not manipulate or lie, she does not bully or shame the audience into agreement. Ancient child-sacrificers and modern-day bankers get a bad rap, but otherwise no one is painted as a villain because of what they believe.

Reading this book helps me show my kids that, while we do not agree with everything we read, people who disagree are not something that we fear. But neither are they simply people to be vanquished, as if the only way to avoid fear is to destroy whatever is different, or whatever we believe to be incorrect. Rather, we look for what we can learn from what is good, while admitting where we disagree.

To me, this is the spirit of critical reading, and of Christian engagement with the world. Its goal is to form adults who are not afraid of different ideas, who can think clearly and recognize the cracks in their own worldview. It is to form adults who can engage others sympathetically and critically at the same time, and who will not be conscripted blindly into culture wars where it is quite likely that no one side can adequately be labelled “Christian.” Kids won’t understand all the ideas underlying a book like this, but I think reading it with a caring parent can help form them into people who are both anchored and open at the same time. In the meantime, The Astonishing Stereoscope is artfully written and tells an engaging story, with characters who embody traits worth emulating.


The morning after we finished the book, my kids and I got donuts to celebrate the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas. As we ate, one of my kids brought up the topic of death, after which another kid talked about Jesus dying, which led to a discussion of the Trinity and beyond. I offered a bit of catechesis.

Then after breakfast we sat down and read about Thomas Aquinas, who found at the end of his life that the Presence of Christ was greater than any idea he could think of, or write of in a book. Yet this same Aquinas was quite ready to draw on the ideas of non-Christians, in particular the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes, to help him understand the Christian faith and the world. In other words, his faith was squarely fixed on Christ, but his mind was ready to learn from the whole world. I’m not sure I could have a greater prayer than that for my children.