If your child has ever jumped up and down upon spotting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, you know you’ve got a great thing going (hurray for enthusiastic readers!). But you might realize something else: The main character, Greg, isn’t the perfect role model. In fact, this middle schooler is a little narcissistic, dishonest, and lazy.
It can be tempting to stuff your child’s bookshelf with only stories about squeaky-clean characters, but a book that portrays a relatable, imperfect figure actually helps kids develop their reading, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills. “This book series deals with real issues that kids struggle with, like bullying and friendship, and a character who doesn’t always hit the right moral mark opens up opportunities for kids to figure out what they might do in that situation,” says Sandra Pimentel, Ph.D., chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Health System in New York City. (You can browse the Diary of a Wimpy Kids series at The Scholastic Store Online.)
Here are four reasons you shouldn’t fear questionable characters like Greg, and the invaluable lessons they can teach your child.
1. First of all, they encourage the love of reading.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is famous for tickling the funny bones of both little and grownup readers, partly because Greg is so irresistibly relatable. He sometimes breaks the rules and gets into trouble, fights with his menacing older brother (in fact, that’s a big focus of Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules), and sometimes tries to be someone he’s not to fit in.
For Amanda Ponzar of Alexandria, Virginia, it’s that approachable humor that encourages her 10-year-old and 7-year-old sons to read. “Often, my son will laugh with tears coming down his face, and he’ll tell me that I have to look at a page in the book,” she says. “My boys read many different types of books, but they really enjoy humor. I don’t think they’re as interested in reading something about a perfect kid, because they’re not perfect kids.”
In fact, a Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report that surveyed children ages 6 to 17 found that 42 percent look for books that make them laugh more than anything else, including books that inspire them to do good or books about a topic they want to learn more about. The same report found that kids prioritize books with characters who are part of a good story over characters who are good role models. Of course, it’s important for children to read a wide variety of texts with different characters and topics (including those with inspiring role models), but humor plays an important role in the mix.
“Humor is a very powerful teaching tool, and these books have gotten some reluctant readers to want to read because they’re funny and a little absurd,” says Pimentel. “I think Diary of a Wimpy Kid exploded in popularity because there wasn’t much out there capturing this type of character before.” (His humor also smartly touches on important topics, like global warming in the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid 13: The Meltdown.)
2. They can prompt important family conversations.
If you read the books with your child, questionable characters will set the stage for stimulating discussions. “Ask questions like, ‘What do you think about what happened in this part of the book?’ or ‘What would you do in that situation?’” says Pimentel. “An unsavory character, who doesn’t always make the choices a parent would recommend, provides the exact opportunity to teach kids about social problem solving.”
It also gives you the chance to go over your own family’s values. “Part of bonding is reading different books together, but I think it’s our responsibility as parents to share whatever the rules or principles are in our family,” says Ponzar. So, for instance, when Greg plans to sneak off to a gaming conference in Diary of a Wimpy Kid 9: The Long Haul, you can use that scenario to discuss your family’s values of communication and honesty.
3. Questionable characters help kids think critically.
Even if you don’t have a family discussion about every outcome in a certain book, characters who make bad decisions encourage children to make their own moral judgments.
“My 9-year-old daughter loves the characters and says she can relate to Greg,” says Katie Foss, a mother of two in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “But she has also told me things like, ‘The parents aren’t really around a lot in this book,’ or ‘The characters aren’t always great to their friends.’ She deciphers between what’s right and wrong.”
The diary format of the series also helps kids easily put themselves in Greg’s shoes. “An ambiguous character like Greg who doesn’t have the strongest moral voice provides the opportunity for kids to imagine and possibly grapple with the issues he’s going through,” says Pimentel. (Take, for instance, Diary of a Wimpy Kid 8: Hard Luck, when Greg is in need of a friend, so he unsuccessfully tries molding a classmate into the perfect pal.)
4. It can help them determine traits of a good role model.
Not every character in children’s books needs to (or should) set a perfect example. “People are human and they’re imperfect, and those are also important things to discuss with children,” says Pimentel. You can even ask her what traits she thinks good and bad role models have.
“My sons look forward to each new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, but I don’t think they believe that Greg is a good role model,” says Cheree Liebowitz, a mother of an 11-year-old and 7-year-old in Hollywood, Florida. “Parents, teachers, community leaders, and other real people in their lives are bigger role models for them. Greg is just a great character in a completely fun, interesting, and cartoon-style book that’s clearly fiction.”