Girls, Boys and Books

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

::C.S. Lewis

I had a friend whose grandmother was a bit of an icon in the early Feminist movement. She used to make frequent book recommendations for her granddaughter, who was a voracious and curious reader. Among them were a number of science fiction novels by the likes of John Wyndham (including Day of the Triffids, about a doomsday invasion of intelligent alien plants. It was a movie; knock yourself out). Reporting back to her grandmother, my friend asked how she could stand the way women were regarded in these novels, with their hoary gender roles and casual misogyny. Mostly, she wanted to know what to make of the absence of women as protagonists or characters with agency. Her grandmother replied with genuine surprise: she said she had never noticed, because she just identified with the male characters.

I have always kept that in mind as my daughters begin to read widely across genres. The fact is, books written in the past reflect the political and cultural limitations in which they were written (and for some reason science fiction, supposedly dealing with the future and the perfection of human societies, tends to be the worst offender). There’s no way around it, really.

Driving around today, we were listening to an audiobook my wife had selected because it was Fourth of July-themed: a recent book about a girl growing up in the era of the American Revolution. In the book, our young heroine neglects her studies, her housework and her etiquette and her baking–in fact, all the markers of femininity in the 18th Century–in favor of more “boyish” pursuits (namely, mud and horses). Which is fine, because surely there were tomboys in every age. But this is a marker of contemporary historical fiction written for girls and young women: in order for modern readers to identify with the protagonist, the assumption goes, she will have to escape or reject the gender roles we now regard as confining (in some cases literally: these women don’t wear corsets). But as my wife pointed out, there were many ways for girls and women to be strong in the lives and times in which they lived. It is unfortunate that today’s writers and publishers don’t trust that we can go there.

And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with swashbuckling heroines. My daughters will meet Katniss soon enough, and I am sure they will get along. But in new fiction for young people they are crowding out all the regular girls.

One solution in the interest of widening the experience of girlhood in literature is to go backwards. Books about girls written a century or more ago–including heavy hitters Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, and as they get a bit older, invincible O.G. Jane Austen–are about girls who live as girls, and grow up to live as women, within the circumstances of their time and place. There is much of value to be gained from this.

What else are they reading, as long as we are rummaging about in the past for entertainment? Robinson Crusoe! The Three Musketeers. Around the World in 80 Days. These stories have hardly a girl among them, but it’s okay. Like my friend’s grandmother, they see themselves. After all, they’re only human.

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Crossing the Threshold

The other morning I was doing what I usually do for the first hour of my waking existence (or at least what’s left of the hour after making coffee and preparing breakfast), which was to read on the sofa. As my four daughters emerge one by one, they generally grab a book from the shelves and sit next to me, until we’re a wire full of birds.

The other morning, though, it was just me and the eight year-old. She was sitting silently by my side with one of the lesser known works of Dr. Seuss: the title escapes me, but it was something he had written under sub-pseudonym Theo LeSieg. At some point she turned to me and said “Daddy” (she puts the emphasis on the second syllable, which just kills me).

When she had my attention, she said, “I think I’m reading now?”

She proceeded to demonstrate. Yup, no doubt. She was reading.

This has been a frustrating process for her, especially since she knew perfectly well that her two older sisters were both younger when they started. She had asked me one night after she got into bed: “Daddy? Do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

Like most things we learn, the final hurdle is one of confidence. And she’s not quite there yet. The elder girls, by contrast, took to reading like a leap out of a plane. It was as if they had finally found the key to the handcuffs. This one is taking it slow.

I try not to imagine my kids in future professions, but occasionally the mind does drift. Of the four, it’s the eight year-old I can see becoming a writer. Not because of her reading, but because of her drawing; the way she renders people in her pictures–in their gestures, expressions, positions, hair, clothing, orientation to one another–casts each of them as utterly distinct and alive. They are characters as realized as any in a novel. Of course, she could be an artist and that would be okay too.

But not a pirate. And that’s final.

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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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Parenting, Mortality and Stuff

A number of events came together this week into a sticky ball of parenting anxiety.

First, while ill-advisedly biting into a chocolate bunny (turns out it was solid, the real deal), I broke a crown that constituted most of one of my top front teeth. I can’t blame years of dental neglect, starting in college and continuing up to last week, on age or mortality. But I thought, nevertheless, about how I am going to die. And because I am a parent, I thought about how my children might deal with that.

The second event is that I began reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a slim but potent book-length essay on the death of her adopted daughter and her doubts about the stolidity of her own body and mind. As Didion writes in the first chapter,

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Exactly. In Didion’s case, she has experienced what she considers the reverse of the “appropriate” sequence of events: the child should not die before the parent. Reading this, I thought about the many ways in which I have shirked my responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life, so that I can continue to be there for my children.

Didion has more to say about this shirking of responsibility, and I am going to quote her at length, largely because she is my favorite writer and can do prose like no one else.

“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to ‘raise’ the child, to let the child go.”

The third event is that the two oldest girls got the results for their benchmark exams (3rd and 5th grade). As they are not public school attenders, we arranged for them to take the test with a professional proctor in Salem. The results were encouraging but not surprising: they are reading at the level of 10th grade and college, respectively. Guess what is important to our family?

This should not be grounds for further anxiety or thoughts of mortality, but leave it to me. Literacy is one thing we have managed to consciously and deliberately imprint on them. That’s one. Mostly it makes me think of all the unintended, or even unknowable, other things that are imprinted alongside it.

As I have said before, there are particular mistakes I am determined not to make as a parent. It’s going to be different ones that come back to haunt me.

Goes with being mortal, I guess?

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In Defense of Screenless Media

I have written on various occasions, including recently, about screen time for children and exactly how much we should freak out about it. As much as I’d like all our kids to be able to spend their days in the outdoors, collecting songbird feathers and building hideouts out of sticks and moss, the fact is that we mostly live indoors, and inside those places we need to cook dinner and study for online classes and stuff. And while we’re doing those things, it can be VERY USEFUL for our children to be occupied with a movie/video game/computerized learning opportunity.

What if, like Morpheus, I told you that there is a third way. A screenless form of media that can be engaging, educational AND leave you with time to collect your thoughts, do chores, and/or catch up on important parenting-related social media discussions.

They call it…an audiobook.

Yes, audiobooks have been around for a while. Prior to their digital incarnation on platforms like Audible, they used to be called (depending on how far back you want to go) “books on tape,” “radio plays,” or “a person telling a story to some other people.”

We use audiobooks heavily in our already book-crammed household. We started the same way I would recommend you starting out, which was to check out CDs from the public library. I believe we started with The Chronicles of Narnia and never looked back.

There continues to be a fierce debate over the value of audiobooks versus the paper kind (and that’s without even pulling ebooks into it). The jury is out over whether listening to a book “counts” as reading it: and this is grown adults arguing about these things. I would certainly expect to hear the objection that children are missing out on crucial literacy skills if they can’t see the words on the page. And I get that. I think children should have real books as well. Tons of them.

Excellent. So let’s move on. Here are some advantages to be found in audiobook listening.

  • Vocabulary expansion. Case in point: last night my six year-old told her sister, “I hope you can overcome the ominousness of going potty,” before giggling at length to herself. Audiobooks.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of literacy. We have words in order to tell each other stories (as well as to warn about sabertooth tigers, I’m sure). We can practice many crucial prereading skills using audiobooks, such as oral language, phonological awareness and listening comprehension. Kids will also learn the structure of stories and the many arcs of meaning embedded in how language is put together.
  • Listening to a story leaves room in the brain (my scientific term) to engage in other activities. My kids like to draw, build with blocks or work with modeling clay while an audiobook is on.
  • Accents. I’m not sure if this is more advantage than warning. Many of the books we listen to are read by British performers, and I’m afraid this has left its mark on the kids’ verbal development. I can tell when my ten year-old is upset about something when she starts to mumble in a posh English accent. And they can all do a passable Irish brogue, a thing I cannot claim for myself.

Finally, while your children are absorbed in an audiobook, you may be able to go in the bathroom by yourself. Have I sold it?

 

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Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

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The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

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Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

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You’re a Poet

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Kids like words. They use them all the time. They put them together in different combinations. Some are funny. Some are very serious, because they describe how they think and feel and see the world. Some are magic, because they make things happen (“what’s the magic word?” We know it, right?).

Thus kids like poetry. They may not know it, but they do. After all, poetry is made of up words that are funny and very serious and, most of all, magic. So why not read and say and write poetry with them?

Wait. You like poetry, right? Oh, did you have to learn poetry in school? Right. Sorry about that. I hope you like poetry. You like songs, anyway, right? That’s poetry. You like jokes and Quentin Tarantino movies. I know you do, because. Poetry.

According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Hmm. Not very poetic.

According to Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s more like it. It sounds pretty alarming and painful, but imagine that it is painless, and there’s no mess, and then the sky can get in. There.

Where to start with kids? You have probably passed along those nursery rhymes that you learned inexplicably yourself, and which are also poetry. You may have played the game in which you and your child try to one-up each other with how much you love each other: “I love you to the moon and back.” “Well I love YOU to the end of the universe and back.” “Yeah? Well I love you infinity.” And so on. That’s poetry and also math! There’s math in poetry, but that’s okay.

Here’s an easy way to make poetry: start with a formula. There are many ways to do this, and some of them have been used for hundreds of years. You can try a haiku. Haiku are Japanese nature poems, and there are a lot of rules that would apply to you if you were an ancient Japanese poet, and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but for our purposes it’s all about the meter.

It goes:

Five syllables

Seven syllables

Five syllables.

 

Without getting into what a syllable is, if you’re with your kids you can tap it out together.

 

Try one yourself.

 

Is this my new friend,

Nodding with its hornless head?

No, snail. It’s my toe!

 

Cat on the rampage

Flips backwards off the sofa:

“I meant to do that.”

 

We’re getting hungry

But it’s too hot for cooking

Ice cream for dinner

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Just Playing

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In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive, but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

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