Reading children

This morning I was late out the shower again.

Still dripping and stumbling over my untied shoes I grabbed for my car keys and burst through the back door only to be stopped short by the sight that confronted me.

Jesse, 13, was at the table by the pool, huddled over a thick tome of generic wizards and WiFi, his school bags scattered around the chair.

That wasn’t so surprising. Jesse takes every gap to bury himself in books. It’s his signature; everybody expects Jesse to be lost to them and the world most of the day.

The surprise was the 8-year-old sitting across from him. Tom had his bags piled onto his lap. Perched on top of everything was a slim book he was holding open, in that peculiar way of children, with a plastic ruler held in his mouth.

“Tom,” I said, surprised. “Are you reading?”
I am sometimes surprised that parent’s don’t choke on the some of the things we say to children.

Tom did not reply - and not only because the appropriate reply would have been a sad shake of the head at the banality of the question. He appeared not to have heard me and didn’t even acknowledge my presence..

“Tom” I said again, my voice raising slightly.
Without stopping reading the little boy lifted the book’s cover towards me.
“James and the Giant Peach”, I exclaimed, “I love that book”.
“You’re going to be just like your brother,” I said, wondering, as the words came out my mouth, what I meant.
Jesse grunted from across the table.  “It’s just one book” he said.

So here were my two boys, full of Jungle Oats and milk, fresh from their mother’s tender ministering and admonishments to not forget their tennis rackets and put the bloody toilet seat down, lost in their literary worlds, with the Cape Town morning sunlight pouring over them.

I felt a small twist in the muscles in my chest; joy, sadness and anxiety tugging away in their own damned directions.
Our feelings about our children are never simple and the reading thing goes like this: Surely we all want our children to love books? We read to them those endless ‘Goodnight Moons’ and ‘Oh, the Places You Will Go” to ..... enrich their lives?, to feel close to them and have them feel safely close to us as they fall asleep?

Do we do it because we have been browbeaten by the childrearing Nazi’s who have all but poisoned parenting for this generation with their passive aggressive guilt trips?

2am under the blankets

I am not certain why my boys are turning out to be serious readers – more than 2, and often more than 6, hours a day. It might be genetic – I was the same as a child, but I always assumed it was, for me, a consequence of loneliness and boredom.   
Jesse and Tom have their days packed with every conceivable activity, including the ubiquitous  TV and Wii, although only on weekends. And weekdays are full of school, sport, friends and little time to even imagine what it is like to be bored.

So, maybe they are reading for a bit of peace and quiet; some time alone? The mother is ambiguous about this. One time too many coming into Jesse’s room to find him reading with a torch under his blankets at 2am and fighting to get him up in the mornings has left her less sympathetic.

She worries that there is something selfish and withdrawn about the reading; that the book becomes a way of avoiding the world, the friends and anything that is important.

“It’s not real life’, she says “it’s a kind of passive avoidance.”

I suppose I know what she means: the story is fantasy and living in the story is time out of the real world. “But it’s hard out there,” I say to her. “They will need every edge they can get. At least with a book no-one can tell them there is no room in the game for them.”

“What game?” she asks, puzzled. “Is this a metaphor, or are you talking about an actual game?”
“No,” I say quickly, “the Game of Life.”
“So if they don’t like ‘the game’ they can just read instead,” she says incredulously.

I remember reading as defending against loneliness; how the immersion in the story can be an exquisite adventure, filled with hearty companions and clear-eyed outdoorsy girls ... and later not such outdoorsy girls. Reading was the magic bullet to avoid bullies, survive exclusion; an elegant bridge over the dark valleys of depression and boredom.

It gives you a kind of power; it’s a personal and independent activity, making you less subject to the whims of your peers and parents.

It is a very common theme amongst writers: childhood loneliness brings a love of reading which leads to the desire to write. Avid reading gives the child and the adult that follows a store of general knowledge and a densely populated universe of imagination.

But the mother of my boys has a point, and it is this caution that stopped me this morning.

I have felt Jesse’s withdrawal away from me and the world and I have worried about this dark side of reading children.  I have watched Jesse’s friends hover anxiously, deliberately irritating, at the edge of his attention. I fear the lesson he might learn too well: no-one and nothing has to be dealt with; ‘I turn my back, I renounce you; I choose this other world where you cannot touch me.’

Because these are my boys and because our children twist our hearts so, I must finally come down on one side or the other.
So I choose to be delighted that Tom is reading and in the car the lesson of the morning reveals itself to me:“It’s just one bloody book!” Jesse says, exasperated.

Before I can tell him to watch his tongue he casts another brilliant shard of light – disguised as a non sequitur - into the darkness: “He’s just reading a book, Dad. It doesn’t make him the same as me. You read books too. But He’s Tom, you’re you and I’m me.”

Are we guilty of trying to make our children like us? And does reading have a negative side?
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24