I just read a list of 10 Scary Books for Kids to Avoid at Bedtime, by Elizabeth DeMeo and I was cringing and laughing at the same time. Cringing because the list was so obtusely arranged with wonderful stories geared anywhere between preschool and high school and I couldn’t believe some of them made the top 10. Laughing because the reasoning seemed skewed and only really applicable on the surface. Time to dig a little deeper as to why this list might work – and why it desperately needs some help.
The list of books you shouldn’t read to your kids at bedtime according to DeMeo includes:
- Hansel and Gretel by Jacob Grimm
- The Witches by Roald Dahl
- Goosebumps by R.L. Stine
- The Little Mermaid by Hands Christian Andersen
- Miss Nelson is Missing! By Harry Allard and James Marshall
- Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault
- Rumpelstiltskin by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Yep – I won’t be reading Goosebumps to my 3rd grader at bedtime (not his kind of book), but you can bet there have been years’ worth of some of these other titles shared at the precious hour of bedtime in our home. Stories like these are not the culprits – how our children see the world and the tools we give them to navigate their way are the bigger issues.
Why The List of Books is Wrong
And How You Can Read These Books and Still Sleep Through the Night
As I read the article and scanned the booklist put out by DeMeo I think I heard a little crackle of a fire – and had a flash of a beloved book being burned. Now I’m pretty confident this isn’t what DeMeo intended, but making sweeping generalizations about such an eclectic collection of bedtime stories is reckless. I’m not alone in my concern that parents will shelter their children from bedtime stories that come with a slight shudder and will take this list and begin to limit bedtime books to only sweet, tender, and unrealistically sappy books.
A research psychiatrist from New York University’s School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, Dr. Tony Charuvastra, reports that scary books and stories can actually be good for our kids. These sometimes frightening, morbid, and eyebrow raising tales can provide play therapy and give a child an outlet for their own typical fears.
According to Charuvastra, “The importance of bad things in stories is that they help create pretend space where bad things can happen. It’s better for your child to experience these feelings for the first time with you, in pretend space, than in non-pretend space.”
DeMeo writes that Miss Nelson is Missing! should be excluded from bedtime rituals because it includes a number of school related worries that might contribute to sleepless nights. Your kids already have worrisome thoughts about real life, but stories like Miss Nelson is Missing!, in which a sweet teacher is faced with a roomful of unruly children, and eventually replaced by a mean, forceful teacher, does not need to be at the top of your overprotection list. Mysteriously Miss Nelson returns when the children have learned to appreciate her – or was she ever really gone in the first place? This classic tale gives kids the opportunity to imagine what their own classrooms might look light with a different teacher, and how their behaviors might impact their classroom. It is much easier for children to deal with these considerations in the context of an imaginary tale within a classic storybook.
Fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and even The Lorax by Dr. Seuss do have darker sides, but psychologists agree that when children are exposed to these types of stories that they empower kids to control their fears and try to be the good guy. And how Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes the list is beyond me. Not only did I read that book to my kids at bedtime and naptime, but I even made a giant pizza-sized cookie that I set by the door for them to find as a surprise weather phenomenon at our own house – and there were never any nightmares!
Read Scary Stories to Your Kids at Bedtime
I do agree with DeMeo that if your child is prone to anxiety, some these books might cause them to be more restless if they hear them right before going to bed. However, it is a very individual experience as to which types of titles might bother each child. The list of bedtime books you should avoid should be developed by you, the parent, based on your own child’s needs. My own daughter could have listened to any of those stories at bedtime without issue, but would not have preferred Little Miss Muppet because of her intense fear of spiders. The list by DeMeo should have been about how to choose bedtime books for your kids instead of a one-size-fits-all bedtime book banning.
- Consider the ages and unique perspectives of your children. Don’t sugar-coat everything, but be conscious of which stories really bother them. Chances are if they don’t like them at bedtime, they don’t want to hear them during the day, either.
- Use bedtime stories to help your kids sort through their emotions. It is much safer to explore sadness, fear, and resentment through the eyes of other characters.
- Include conversation in your bedtime routine. Don’t just read the book and declare “lights out!” – but allow for questions from your kids about the story and be honest with your answers.
- Take advantage of the quiet stillness that bedtime brings to have meaningful conversations with your kids – books are wonderful catapults for great discussions. Choose books that might spark questions, encourage passions, or allow for discussions of difficult topics.
- Consider other influences that might contribute to your children’s nighttime anxiety – TV, movies, and video games can be much more violent and frightening than a book.
- Don’t take a random list developed by someone else to determine which books you shouldn’t read to your kids at bedtime. Let your kids be your guide – and allow books to open their imaginations and fuel their ideas.