Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 30, 2010

parents and children

Michael Norris, “an American publishing expert,” says, “Parents have too much of a role in deciding which books their child is going to read. It is turning children off. They should let them choose.” This is plausible. Let’s look into this some more.

First, he argues, reading should never be described with "work words" which make it seem like a chore. Too many families, Norris suggests, have fallen into the trap of stereotyping reading as a "good" activity and digital or online game playing as "bad". Instead, it is important to let reading become associated with pleasure and achievement, just as game playing is.

I like that thought. But then Norris goes on to say,

"The average child consumes a ridiculous amount of media in any given day, from television, videogame content and audio content, so new reading devices, such as the iPad, are not going to have as great an impact on the younger market as people hope. When they are not playing games or listening to music, the majority of a young adult's time is spent on the phone, talking or receiving and sending text messages. Books don't even factor into their thinking."

Seems generally true. But how can parents cause books to factor in to their children’s thinking without affirming that books are “good”?

Make sure children talk directly to a librarian or a bookseller, while parents stand well back. Looming over a child takes all the fun out of their discoveries, he says. Parents should allow children to choose their own reading material.

"Even if a mother or father is just standing with the child when the bookseller asks them what they like to read, we have found that the child will give an answer they think their parent wants to hear. It will not be the same answer they would give alone," said Norris. . . .

It is also important, he added, for parents not to enthuse about books that they loved as children: "Parents often say, 'When when I was your age...', and it tends to put off children too."

This seems to presume an oddly, strongly oppositional relationship between parents and children. Should parents really be forbidden to introduce books to their children that they themselves loved? Isn't it at least possible that one bond between parent and child can be shared love of a book? It seems rather closed-minded for a “publishing expert” not to take that option into account. My son Wes was indifferent to some of the books I recommended to him — or, earlier, read to him — but rather than ceasing to recommend books, I simply made sure he knew that his response was just fine and that he was not expected to like something just because I did. And then there are other books I asked Wes to read that we both love and have talked about often over the years, to our mutual delight. Should I really have refused to recommend those books to him because of the chance that he wouldn't care for them?

Maybe we can understand Norris’s attitude better when we read this:

"My father forced me to read The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy when I was much too young and I have never read another Clancy since," said Norris.

Ah, well, there’s your problem.

9 comments:

  • This is annoying on so many levels it's hard to think straight. (Of course, others might think that's just a general problem with me...)

    First, take the notion that books won't have that much of an impact because of the amount of media kids tend to consume today. Hmmmm...and why is that? Well, I'm guessing that it's not your typical 12-year old who buys a cell phone or pays for a tv or whatever. My daughter carries around at times a satchel filled with a flashlight, a voice recorder, ziplock baggies and who knows what else because she has churned through most of the library's Nancy Drew series and she decided she wanted to be a detective herself. She doesn't really get to watch tv, play on the computer or do much of anything with stuff that has to be plugged in. So she has books - it really, really is possible to do this. Promise.

    Next, it's not just that the writer thinks there's this adversarial relationship between parents and children, but that the parents won't have any clue what their children will like. Why think that? And why think some perfectly nice lady behind the desk at the library will be any better at it? And, plus, isn't one of the things we get to teach our children by recommending books they don't like that it's ok not to like things? Even things your parents do like? Horrors.

    Finally, reading isn't *just* about enjoyment. I want my kids to enjoy reading so that they will read (for a whole host of reasons). But I'm also keenly interested in what they read quite beyond enjoyment because what they read will help form them morally. So why would I hand that over to the very nice librarian. There are things I don't want them to read (or at least not read yet) precisely because I think it would be bad for them, even if they would enjoy it.

    Ok, rant done...

  • I know how he feels. I was forced to read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in school, and I haven't read anything by Harper Lee since.

  • Feel free to keep ranting, Bryan!

    And Doug, that's a real shame, because I don't think To Kill a Mockingbird is by any means her best work.

  • I can see where he's coming from; too often parents look at their children's reading as an achievement thing, and push them too hard rather than letting the love of reading develop naturally. However, I think you make a good point: there is something to be said about developing a shared love of reading with your children. I don't "pick" books for my girls; I go to the library, check out a whole bunch of books for them, and let them go through the piles. Sometimes, they read everything. Sometimes nothing. But the option's are there.

    Besides, who better knows the child's reading preferences than the parents?

  • This is an unusual instance where you didn't link to the source and I wanted to read it. Ah, well ....

    That said, what you've quoted and commented on reads to me like the sort of parenting how-to pablum I see everywhere these days, most of which forks over responsibility and decision making to the child or the supposed expert. It also instills performance anxiety in the parent and weakens the parent-child relationship by saying simply that there should be less of one. In the spirit of fairness and open-mindedness, it's easy to accept some exhortation; they're not all bad. But taken as a whole, it's IMO a bunch of crap.

  • The link works for me — on the word "says" in the first line. Probably should have spread it over more than one word. . . .

  • du Garbandier said...

    "...I don't think To Kill a Mockingbird is by any means her best work."

    !!!

  • You guys are very funny.
    *****

    I don't like the way the guy generalizes about parents and children. He says reading is a personal experience and shouldn't be seen as a mass marketing one, but he treats parents as a mass.
    There are many different kinds of relationships between parents and children, and I'm sure, many different ways in which books enter into those relationships.

  • Michael Straight said...

    We probably need to ask, Who is the intended audience for this article?

    He's probably not talking to the folks here who spend more time reading with their children than watching TV with them. Maybe he's thinking of parents who don't themselves read much and who try to get their kids to read because they know it's good for them. I can see maybe advising such a parent to back off and let kids discover books for themselves.

    But I agree it would be better to advise parents to try to find a book they can enjoy together with their kids.

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