Should my children read Harry Potter?

February 13th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi, Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Reading Recommendations 32 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I’m an orthodox Jewish homeschool mom of five and I love your show! Our homeschool curriculum focuses heavily on reading good literature and my kids have just reached the age where Edward Eager’s tales of magic, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many others in the fantasy genre are on many recommended reading lists.

I’m unsure of how to approach the element of magic in children’s stories. The Torah forbids witchcraft, so should stories that feature magic be anathema to my Torah-observant kids?

Thanks for the great materials you produce. I consider them part of my continuing education. 🙂

Jessie W.

Dear Jessie,

We’re delighted that you watch our show and that you are homeschooling. As you may know, we homeschooled for many years and a number of our grandchildren are now being homeschooled as well.

Some of our children were the intended audience age when the first Harry Potter book came out.  This book became a major topic of discussion among both the Jewish and Christian homeschoolers we knew. More than any other topic we can think of, the families we knew (and respected) were all over the map on this one.

Approaches ranged from an absolute ban on reading any sort of fantasy to those who couldn’t see any problem whatsoever with the genre. Our view was somewhere in the middle. We made a judgment call and will share some of our considerations, but we would like to emphasize that each child and his surroundings need to be taken into account. Unlike certain questions, such as whether a child should call a parent by his first name where the answer is clear cut (absolutely not!), this question has a lot of room for knowing an individual child, the specific book, subjectivity and praying for Godly wisdom.

When they were young, our children, like many others, delighted in books featuring talking animals who dressed and behaved like people. As parents we saw these books as imaginative, not sinister. Part of the developing toddler sense of humor was understanding that a moose would not go into a store to buy candy and a duck would not toss a salad for a dinner party.

We saw Edward Eager’s books like Half-Magic  or The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit as more sophisticated versions of the same idea. They are incredibly clever stories of things that can never happen; imaginative rather than sinister.

As children grow, it is important for them to understand what the Bible is warning about and forbidding one to dabble in. There are spiritual forces in the world that we cannot easily understand and that nonetheless can do great harm. For example, the focused wishing of evil on someone, for example via a voodoo doll, can have an effect. It is forbidden. In the same way, some people are capable of communing with the dead. This is possible – and forbidden. Statues coming to life under a full moon or finding a coin that allows you to move backwards in history are not real options, so we didn’t see reading about them as problematic.

Is Harry Potter, a brilliant book and not surprisingly a best-seller, different in a real way to the above books or even to the TV show Bewitched?  We don’t know. Many times cultural influences are incredibly subtle.Our second-hand understanding is that the Harry Potter books became darker as the series went along. (Our children were older at that point and I think their interest waned, but anyway they were then at an age to make their own decisions.) We know parents who explained to their children that while they allowed the early books into their homes, they would not let in the later ones.

Realistically, each family needs to decide where certain lines are drawn as well as knowing the point at which forbidding something makes it intensely desirable. There are only so many issues where one can take a stand unless one moves to a community with only like-minded people and shuts out the outside world. 

What we would strongly recommend is forging a relationship with your children that has them respecting and caring what you think. That means explaining your views and listening to theirs. It also means taking the time to read and watch the things to which they are being exposed and doing so with a keen eye. You and they need to develop the ability to see the message behind the message and hone an awareness of what is shaping morals and ideas. Dinnertime conversations are priceless.

We are sure you are already aware of this, but cultural messages are constantly being sent by all sorts of literature. You are raising only one area of concern but parent-child interactions, male-female relationships, views of America and attitudes to money are only four areas where values can be easily absorbed through reading.  For example, we rejected Berenstain Bear books for our children because the father was often portrayed as a genial buffoon whose wife and children were clearly smarter and more accomplished than he was. 

You need to be clear on what your family values are. While we appreciated C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and most of our Christian friends loved the books, we personally chose not to share those with our children. Narnia is a Christian parable and as such, no matter how lovely a story, it wasn’t meant for our Jewish family. One of our friends, whose children grew up to be just as committed Jews as our children, made the decision to let her children read the Narnia series. Each parent should take the responsibility to make those decisions herself.

Our homeschooling was very literature based and we have wonderful memories of read-aloud sessions with teenagers perfectly capable of reading to themselves. We hope you create many wonderful memories of your own.

Enjoy these years,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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32 comments

Paul Black says:

Dear Rabbi,
Thanks for bringing up something that has been a point of contention in my circles. You are absolutely right that you need to know your child in order to guide them best.
I have read all of the Harry Potter novels and you are right, they do get darker as the series goes along, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Each novel covers one year, and I noticed that the themes, even as they get darker, tend to be appropriate for that particular age group. For example Harry starts out in the series as a 10 year old, and many of the themes are appropriate for a 10 year old. in the 3rd book, he is 13, and he is subjected to things you might expect a 13 year old to be subjected to. The first really impactful death comes in the 5th book, Harry is 15, an age when some children might expect a favored elderly uncle or aunt to pass on . And so it goes. Each book a year, and the themes seem to remain appropriate for that age group. I’d far rather have my children reading rather than playing video games or otherwise staring into a screen. As always, though, it comes down to knowing and parenting your child.

Susan Lapin says:

Paul, I’ve only read the first book. Re the issue of death, it was pretty common in books from the 1800s or early 1900s to have death since it was something there was more exposure to in real life. Whether it was a mother dying in childbirth, or a child dying from disease or even violent death. Someone dying, in and of itself, does not make something mature reading material in my opinion. As I said, I don’t know what things Harry gets exposed to as he grows – but I’m sure many others can chime in.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with your overall approach to the subject, I was a huge Harry Potter fan, even though I was unaware of the series until the third book came out. J. K. Rowling has a classics background and as such, enriches the background of a lot of kids who were not home schooled. Young children were carrying around these tomes and hanging on every word! The vocabulary is rich. The underlying value system is what it needs to be for Judeo-Christian backgrounds, as are the Narnia chronicles. Certainly there are some children for whom they would not be a wise choice, and there is always a lot to be said for reading along with the child, with appropriate comments and/or questions. [For a somewhat less dark approach, my niece, Melissa Gunther, has written a series modeled on Harry Potter but with a female protagonist and her own very fresh adaptations, the “Celia’s Journey” series (check Amazon)]. As always, thanks to you both for your insightful approach to the subject.

Susan Lapin says:

You have an enterprising niece, Deb.

TJ says:

Such a stunning and reasonable answer to the question! Thank you so much.

Susan Lapin says:

Homeschool kids often devour books, so reading material is a big topic.

Susan Lapin says:

You’re welcome TJ. I was intrigued by your website name and visited. Very interesting – but I was disappointed that my Susan’s Musings weren’t in the blogs you follow! (Just kidding – I think)

Paige F. says:

Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin,

I always enjoy reading your weekly emails. I feel compelled to say that I especially enjoy when you mention literature, most specifically, children’s literature. Classic stories, such as Anne of Green Gables, Little House Series, Besty Tacy, etc. are only now being read for the first time in my mid twenties. I am building a list of books with ages I think my two daughters would enjoy them most (they are 5 and 1 1/2). My husband and I value your opinions of books and have found many to be great additions to our library and reading lists. Thank you for sharing this question and answer.

Best wishes,
Paige Fritsche

Susan Lapin says:

Paige, you have so much wonderful reading ahead of you. I too, only read the Betsy-Tacy series and a number of other classics as an adult. I have no idea how I missed them as a child since I was always reading.

LJ Kennedy says:

My family were avid readers when I was growing up. I majored in art and literature. However, as time went on, I felt increasingly uncomfortable w ‘adult fantasy’ themes and turned back to biblical and historical tomes. Don’t miss the nonsense.

Susan Lapin says:

Lori, have you read Gentleman in Moscow? My husband and I both just finished it and loved it.

WILLIAM J BROWER says:

Rabbi Lapin and Miss Susan,
Once again you have addressed an important subject with tact and wisdom. The choice of reading material for young and preteen children is an ongoing struggle. On the one hand you want to expose them to literature that will challenge their thoughts and enforce the moral values you believe in. On the other hand you want them to develop love of literature that we have. We need to encourage the child to read, to choose reading over television or video games, but not fall into the pop literature of the era. I say the era because even in the dark ages when I read by the cave firelight, I often read what some would consider trash, The Tom Swift series, The Hardy Boys, The X-X Boys. Books that had nothing to offer but good clean fun without a dark side that you had to watch for. As I got older Jack London and Kipling became my go tos with Poe and Wells thrown in. I read and reread The Harve Allen books about the French and Indian Wars and I developed a love of literature that stays with me today. Television held no real attraction to me, nor does it today.
That said, I do not believe that there are many children today who would struggle through Kipling’s KIM. I reread it a couple of months ago and while I enjoyed renewing an old acquaintance, found it somewhat hard going.
My grandchildren love to read, and I have reviewed their choices, one loves biography and nonfiction about sports, the other was into The Diary of a Wimpy Kid but is reaching out for other genera. The classics of my youth are out of date and have no real relevance for today’s youth, As with our age group there has to be a hook, and I am afraid that in many cases that hook is a forbidden fruit,
But it may be worth the exposure to the forbidden fruit to maintain the reading interest. We can discuss the issues and give our feeling about sex, witchcraft, vampires, and my least favorite Zombies.
Of more concern to me is the mainstream media our youth ( and you and I) are exposed( bombarded with) daily. Lifestyles I do not approve. A drug culture that is made to seem somewhat acceptable. Unmarried pregnancy, ON and On. To lessen the exposure to this brainwashing, I want my Grandkids to immerse themselves in literature to the detriment of television.
Of particular concern to me is the Disney Studio productions.
Where is a good strong male in any current Disney production? Where once we had Davy Crockett now all we have are “Princesses. ” Once we had male heros now we have insipid young girls who are smarter and stronger than any of their male companions.
So to end this longer than necessary missive, encourage your children to read ALMOST anything they want, be aware of the content, but keep a book they want to read in front of them whenever possible.
Thank you for your efforts, and for putting up with an old man who tends to get carried away sometimes.
Fair sea and smooth sailing to the two of you
Bill Brower

Susan Lapin says:

Bill, we’re going to have to blacklist you if you keep calling yourself old! I had the same experience that you did with Kim when I started to reread Les Miserables. I loved it as a teenager and found it hard to get into as an adult. I do know that my attention span isn’t what it used to be, but I also don’t have the hours of uninterrupted reading time that I had when I was younger.

Eric says:

Can you provide more information about where to find “The Harve Allen books” about the French & Indian War, please? I can’t find anything in Amazon or Google.

Joyce R. says:

I believe they are now out of print. If you are interested, you should be able to go to a public library and request them on inter library loan. You can find the names of His books by searching on his name and French and Indian Wars on the internet before you go to the library. It may take a few minutes to wander through the weeds but he is there. Unfortunately, i didn’t think to write down the names of his books at the time. I think there are three if I remember correctly. Happy hunting.

Joan Evans says:

I read the Tom Swift series when I was growing up.My grandmother had bought them for my father when he was growing up. I later read them to my son. Still have them. Haven’t reread them in 40years or more.

Jim says:

In reference to your comment about reading aloud to your teenagers, this may seem strange to some but, my wife and I read whole books aloud to each other (taking turns reading) before we even had the kids. It was fun and allowed us to discuss things we read, in context, that seemed to contribute to bonding. It’s the same with reading to/with your kids. We still do it even though one is in college and the other graduated from U. of WA at age 20 (home-schooled, of course).

Susan Lapin says:

We used to read a chapter from a book at Shabbat meals, Jim, and we had guests who were upset if they weren’t invited every week and they missed out on a chapter.

celesta says:

Dear Rabbi Lapin,
I read a well-balanced, very concerned, anti-Harry Potter book years ago, when the series was first gaining in popularity, and schools in particular were trying to decide whether to let the children read these books. (Not even to mention homeschooling.) I do not like many, many things about this series.
This book that I read pointed out something that the (Harry Potter) author did, which I felt was rather insidiously sneaky. She used names of actual wizards/warlocks/witches who had existed through history, and who had contributed to their slew of dark arts/books/etc., as names of minor characters, or locations in the Harry Potter series. As we know, children can become very enamored of a so-called “fantasy” book, and it would not take them long to begin Googling these character names on a bored evening. This could potentially draw them farther into a world where very real people practice the “fantasy” [read witchcraft] elements written of in the book. It is definitely a world where BIBLICAL VALUES are not upheld (the understatement of the century), and not one I would want my children exposed to in the least. I also noticed, upon reading some of the library books that some of our church’s homeschooled children checked out of the library (yes I try to monitor everything I can!), that there are other authors who seem to use this same tactic, whether intentionally or not. In a fiction book that shall remain nameless, about 2nd graders that go to spend an overnight field trip at an aquarium, which should be standard humorous and educational children’s fare, that within the 1st 10 pages of the book, there were 3 references to darker, more sinister things, just slipped in there. For instance, the author made a point to throw in an unnecessary detail about how one of the child’s stuffed animals was named Gilgamesh. Then in the next chapter referred OVER AND OVER AGAIN to a famous book (by title and author) that depicts, in awful grisly fashion, the Celtic and Druidic “faeries”, who are some the most heinous demonic looking hags you’ve ever seen. Then before the 10th page was even up, Dungeons and Dragons was referenced MULTIPLE TIMES, as a “nickname” for the tour guide at the aquarium. Now why in the world would any child need to have all those references (and there were many more) put into their consciousness? And I don’t think that ANY parent would have expected that slant to have been included in a book about a trip to an aquarium. As the Apostle Paul said, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Personally I wouldn’t let any of my children, or any child really, or myself either, touch any of the Harry Potter books with a 10-foot pole, unless there was fire at the end of said pole.
Thank you for all your advice that is earnestly endeavouring to help mold and form not just children, but people of all ages, into more godly, more sincere, more pure, more useful members of God’s family.

Susan Lapin says:

Very interesting, Celesta. I was completely unaware of this.

Priscilla Longworth says:

Thank you, thank you for addressing this issue! As a homeschooling mother myself, I have been very puzzled by this issue. You have given much food for thought.

Susan Lapin says:

We take that as a great compliment, Priscilla.

Joyce R. says:

Ms. Susan, thank you. I don’t have children but would never want my great niece or great nephew to read the Harry Potter series. I remember my closest friends at work talking about the books at work. Not only did they read them but they encouraged their children to do so. They saw absolutely nothing wrong with the supernatural aspects of the books. Just hearing about the subject matter of the first one, I realized I would never read them myself. I believe exposing ourselves and our children to the dark ideas in these books desensitizes us spiritually. There were reasons that the Sovereign Lord and Creator forbid us to engage in witchcraft, talking to the dead, etc. we are supposed to build our lives on relationship with others and with God, not on seeking to manipulate others or God to do what we want because we want it. Unfortunately, all too many miss this spiritual root of the problem with materials like Harry Potter. Thank you for bring clarity on this issue. Blessings to you, Rabbi Daniel, and your whole family.

Susan Lapin says:

Joyce, I’d be curious to know if you see a distinction between the Harry Potter series and, for example, the TV show Bewitched or any one of a dozen books like Edward Eager’s Half-Magic.

Joyce R. says:

I am unfamiliar with Half Magic so cannot comment on it specifically. As for Bewitched—the whole idea of witchcraft bothers me, even what some would call Samantha’s good, or ‘white’, magic. The program sugar coated witchcraft, which Scripture tells us is an abomination. When you manipulate people and situations, even for a supposed good, rather than prayerfully putting your concerns before the Holy One, you create an opening. You make it easier to continue down a path that spirals farther and farther from how the Lord would have us live. Taken to their logical conclusion, both Harry Potter and Bewitched lead to the same end as Jezebel and the witch of Endor. While there may be those who can read such books or watch such programs without being adversely affected spiritually, why, if you are seeking to live a righteous life would you do so. Even more, why would you expose your precious young ones to such materials?

Susan Lapin says:

Joyce, I heard that the network was worried that Bewitched would fail for exactly that reason – people would be reluctant to watch it because it contradicted the Bible. They were surprised when it was a hit. Interestingly, Samantha’s mother on the show was named Endora. I don’t think that is a coincidence but taken directly from the witch of Endor in the Bible.
You make an excellent point.

Ed Taylor says:

DISCERNMENT!? What a concept!
Thank you once again for another thoughtful article.

Susan Lapin says:

Thanks for writing, Ed.

Avril Amanda says:

Thank you for a rich discussion. This question along with replies and comments would make a good package accompanying the Perils of Profanity and Aleph Beth. Maybe many children would benefit from this resource in their reading supplies. It is about time that many careful parents would guide the children to be producers of reading material and reading diet instead of voracious consumers of questionable reading diet. Thank you for all that you do.

Gayle says:

I felt very strongly about reading Harry Potter Books, I personally felt very strongly on not attempting Harry Potter Books. When I was younger I did read fairy stories to my children. Since I have become a Born Again Christian I felt as if The Holy Spirit was trying to keep me from reading anything like that. When I tried to read the Lord of the Rings I finally had to give the books back as I felt so uncomfortable and I believe the Holy Spirit was showing me not to go into those areas of Witchraft.

Susan Lapin says:

This issue really does speak more strongly to some people than to others, Gayle.

Tammy says:

I appreciate Rabbi Lapin’s opinion; however, I strongly believe that the age of the children should be considered when deciding what books they read. While I don’t consider Harry Potter’s books appropriate for young children, I believe they are fine for older children as they understand what fantasy is; they can tell a difference between fiction and non-fiction, as long as parents find the time for discussing the material. Of course all children develop at different stages and allowing certain books is for a parent to decide according to developmental stages. Moreover, one of the most important aspects of parenting is that of being aware of what your child is reading at any age. Then, open communication is key to learn the child views on what she’s reading and be ready to redirect when the opinion is mistaken. My point here is, we cannot keep our children in a box. Even when you homeschool them, there comes a point when they must interact with the world at large and I better have them ready with strong beliefs and opinions than oblivious to confront others when needed. I, for one, grew up in a conservative Jewish family and Bewitched was a favorite of mine. TV time was limited and was seen always as pure entertainment. There was never a doubt in my mind that Bewitched was pure fantasy. My parents made sure I viewed it as such. Additionally, they always taught me to do good to other human beings (Mitzvot) and be kind to animals and nature in general. At the end of the day, regardless of what age-related books are read and what TV shows kids watch, parent involvement is key for raising healthy and concsious children.

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