Reading by Example

I.

My son Carter is reading Harry Potter at six years old. I’m not saying that to brag (okay, maybe a little), but it’s important to the story. He made his way through the first three books pretty well, but I know that each book in the series is progressively longer and more complex, especially for a six-year-old, and as I expected he started to slow down by The Goblet of Fire. He finished it with an assist from me, reading together each night before bed, and insisted on starting The Order of the Phoenix right away. After a few weeks though, he had stopped reading it on his own and started asking me to read other books with him at night. I asked him about it, and he admitted it was too hard. We still read it together at night but he spends most of his time now doing other six-year-old boy things like building Legos and driving his little sister crazy.

II.

My personal theory of parenting centers around the idea that if you want your kids to behave a certain way, you should lead by example. If you want them to be polite and gracious, let them hear you thanking the waitress and witness you holding the door open for little old ladies. If you want them to read, let them see you with a book in your hand, lost in its pages, and show them how important reading is in your life.

Educators and bookish folks are worried enough about getting boys to read that they have a special name for them: “reluctant readers.” In a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Lipsyte wrote that a big part of the problem in getting boys to read is finding books they can connect with, that speak to their emotions instead of just pandering to their base instincts. “Boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships,” he wrote. “The kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives.” I read this and thought about what happened with Carter and Harry Potter. My theory of leading by example has worked. He clearly enjoys reading, but I’m afraid that by letting him find his own way and pick out a book that was too hard, he’ll be discouraged from reading more. I managed to turn a willing reader into a reluctant one.

III.

Carter spends a week with my parents at the end of each summer, in the gap between the end of camp and the start of school. They live in the Indianapolis area now, so this year we met them halfway at a Chili’s in Lafayette, Indiana to make the exchange. I’ve learned to expect him to be ornery when he’s excited about something big like a holiday or a trip, but this time he was so bad that when we pulled into the parking lot I made my parents wait outside the car while I let him have it. The problem was that we were 100 miles from home and he was about to spend a week with his grandparents. I couldn’t deploy my best weapons like taking away toys or cutting off TV and the computer, so I spluttered like Yosemite Sam in impotent rage.

Disciplining my kids like that always sets off a cycle of guilt and self-doubt. Later in the restaurant, I sat there eating a Flintstone-sized slab of ribs wondering if it had done any good, feeling bad for sending him off for the week on such a bad note. For all its rewards, raising children does a number on your self-confidence. What possible lesson could Carter take away from that outburst in the parking lot of a chain restaurant on a freeway interchange? That he should shout and issue empty threats when he doesn’t get his way?

The problem with my method of parenting by example is that I don’t always set the best example myself. It’s getting harder the older he gets, now that we’re past “share with your friends” and “don’t throw sand.” Things like empathy and patience are difficult to teach when I struggle with them myself. That’s why I want him to read, to experience the inner lives of characters who celebrate and suffer, succeed and fail in their own ways so he can learn from their examples too. Books can teach him how to live when I can’t show the way.

IV.

I started a new job recently, a new career in fact. I took three weeks off between jobs and spent a lot of time with Carter. We had fun together hanging out, playing catch at the park and hitting up the 7-Eleven for daily Slurpees, but he understood that I was excited to get started. The night before my first day at the new job we were reading Harry Potter again. I finished a chapter, put the book down, and unprompted, he said, “Good luck on your first day at work tomorrow.” I don’t know if he learned to thoughtful like that from me, his mother or a book. I’m happy with any of the three.