One of the most annoying things about parenting is how little confidence you can have, at any given moment, that your parenting choices are right. Too often, George and I look at each other and ask, "How do we respond to this situation?" We're working blind, here, folks, feeling our way forward with what we hope is enough love to repair any damage we unintentionally inflict.
And we still might not know for years if what we're doing today will work or will backfire spectacularly.
Take the subject of reading, for instance. George and I are, to state it mildly, bibliomaniacs. We always have been. Neither of us can imagine life without books. We don't just read. We devour. And yet from very young ages, our two sons said things like "I hate reading" or "Do we have to go to Barnes & Noble? Again!?!?" When Jack was little, he would get off my lap and walk away if I started reading to him. Nick had a little more tact, but not much patience.
Who are these kids? Where did they come from? Not our loins, surely. Our loins are far too well-read to produce book-hating rug rats.
In the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner analyze the numbers and argue that readers are not made by spending hours on parents' laps being read to, but rather by being exposed to books at home and in libraries. Simply having access to books--not actually reading them--made the difference. I rejoiced at this freaky statistical finding. It gave me hope.
For years now, George and I have dragged the boys to Barnes & Noble and made them do their 20-minutes-a-night reading and taken them to libraries. We have read in front of them daily and left books lying all over the house. We have filled shelves in their rooms with age-appropriate books. We saturated their lives with the written word, despite their apparent allergy to it.
Results to date are somewhat mixed.
This Christmas, I gave Jack, our 12-year-old, two Magic Treehouse books and a timer/bookmark. On Christmas Day, we had the following conversation:
Jack: Mom, why did you buy me books for Christmas?
Me: Because your teacher told me you liked the Magic Treehouse books, and since you have to read chapter books every night, I thought you'd appreciate them.
Jack: Hm. Really?
Me: Say, "Thank you, mommy, for the books."
Jack: Thank you, mommy, for the books.
Me: You're welcome. I hope you enjoy them.
Nick, who is now 15, claimed to hate reading for years, but then discovered comic books. As much as I don't understand the appeal, comic books are, at least technically, books, so we've tried to encourage his passion, but have you seen comic books lately? Heaven above, they are violent, sexualized, and dark! What happened to The Archies? Our parents never had to worry about screening comic books...but that's just what George and I do.
Recently, however, we've seen signs of hope that our firstborn might actually become a serious reader. Last year, he started reading the Harry Potter series (still not finished). Then The Hunger Games series (almost finished). Then The Hobbit (finished last week).
He's far quicker to put a book down than George and I are, but at least he's reading. He even wants to start The Lord of the Rings soon. Dare I hope that at least one of our children will follow in our bibliophilic footsteps?
I don't want to celebrate prematurely and scare the kid off, but he certainly made me proud at Christmas dinner. Each of us shared what we are grateful for, and Nick said, "I'm grateful for stories. I'm grateful for the brilliant minds that write stories to inspire us and shape us and teach us."
Maybe, just maybe, loving Stan Lee will lead him to love Shakespeare or Joyce or Austen. But for now, I'm more than happy to settle for J.R.R. Tolkien. After all, The Lord of the Rings is one of the ten books I'd want if stranded on a deserted island.
Because, you know, it is an amazing story.