It was a brilliant Saturday morning, the sun shining, the air warm—just the type of day my kids loved for playing outside. Yet instead of racing out the door, my kids were clumped together on the couch and glued to a blank screen.
“Guys, what are you doing?” I asked.
“Waiting. New YouTube video goes live in ten,” said my oldest.
“Ten minutes? You’re watching a blank screen for ten minutes?” I asked.
“It’s not blank. There’s a countdown,” said my son, pointing to a timer.
“But, guys, it’s so nice out! Don’t you want to go play?”
“Later!” they all replied.
Baffled, I made my coffee and let them watch their blank screen.
Saturday mornings were their YouTube time, where they could watch a few videos from preapproved channels. We’d made the mistake years ago of introducing YouTube when we were out in public and needed quiet. To cut back, this was our latest compromise.
Yet that morning, when the video started, with all its pranks and challenges and quick camera cuts that I just knew were killing their attention spans, my husband and I decided it was time to ban YouTube once and for all. When the video ended, we turned off the TV and enjoyed the sunshine.
But in the coming weeks, I found that we couldn’t fully escape its world even without YouTube in our home. As news broke of a TikTok challenge that had left a teenager dead from a Benadryl overdose, my two girls performed a TikTok dance my oldest learned on YouTube. Then at night, my nine-year-old thumbed through graphic novels and books where kids had phones and social media.
And I realized how deeply we had normalized the very behaviors I’d always wanted to keep out of our home.
For all who aren’t familiar with Where the Red Fern Grows, it is an autographical novel about ten-year-old Billy, who lives in the Ozark mountains during The Great Depression and dreams of having two coonhound dogs for hunting. The book follows Billy as he spends two years saving money for his puppies, then trains them to hunt raccoons. The trio then embarks upon a string of adventures hunting in the Ozark mountains, all told through Billy’s lens of faith, gratitude, and appreciation for the natural world.
This book was nothing like my daughter’s typical picks, but she agreed to humor me. Eight dollars and two Amazon Prime shipping days later, and we were in business.
I waited anxiously to share the book with my daughter all that day.
Where the Red Fern Grows had taught me so much as a kid about grit and determination, patience and love. I still remember reading it as a child, my face messy with tears as I neared the end, Billy and his dogs and the mountains roamed as real to me as the words on the page.
Where the Red Fern Grows encapsulated many of the lessons I wanted to teach my children but were so hard to convey in a world that moved at warp speed. It was just the type of detox my daughter needed.
But my experiment didn’t go as planned. After a few days of reading, my daughter declared the book boring. It moved too slowly.
“Well, that’s how books were back then,” I said. “More description, more painting the scene. The world moved slower, and books gave the plot time to develop. You just got to keep reading. You’ll get into it, I promise,” I said.
She raised her brow but promised to keep trying. Yet a few days later, the verdict was in. Still boring. So I grabbed the book and told her we’d read it together. And we did. I read it aloud as she cuddled in my lap like she had so many times before as a younger girl.
Together we discussed new words and concepts she’d never heard of before. Together we witnessed Billy try his first “soda pop.” We watched him defend his dogs from a mountain lion. Then we took breaks to discuss what we were reading.
“It’s pretty amazing Billy walked twenty miles to town alone, isn’t it?” I asked. “Could you imagine doing something like that?”
“No, I can’t,” she said.
“I bet it felt pretty cool. Maybe scary too,” I said.
“Yeah, but things were different then. He grew up outside. I bet it felt normal to him.”
I smiled, feeling her worldview expand right there in her bedroom. And I realized that reading the classics was the antidote to YouTube I was looking for. That I’d found a way to counteract the technology we couldn’t fully avoid. To lengthen her attention span and teach her about the beauty beyond the confines of this connected world.
I want my kids to love adventure. To crave nature. To understand that true happiness doesn’t come from fame on a screen but from working hard to achieve a goal. From loving your family. Living a life that makes you proud.
This is why I’ve decided to make reading the classics a required part of our home curriculum. Sure, I want my children to still read books written today. As an author of contemporary fiction, I know this is paramount. And I’m certain the world of YouTube will eventually find a way to creep back in.
But once every couple of months, I want my kids to lose themselves in the world that came before. To run wild through the Ozarks. To discover a secret garden. To fly over London with Peter Pan.
I want my children to appreciate the detailed scenes and slower paces. To expand their worldviews and vocabulary as they do so. And I want to remain part of their reading journey as we discover these time-honored worlds together.