Our kids understand books because we read them books!

Well, it’s happened with the second child: That moment when a total stranger interrupts my reading aloud to voice the opinion that the child is too young to understand what I’m reading.  Here’s how I described this phenomenon when my first child was 4 years old:

I must say, I got far less flak from the transit-riding public for reading my four-year-old the book of Job than I did for reading him The Hobbit a few months back! We got a few startled looks, but nobody took it upon herself to lean in and inform me that my child could not possibly understand this story, which happened no fewer than four times with The Hobbit. (Nicholas gave those naysayers a surprised look and said, “I do understand it! Bilbo was rescued by an eagle who’s carrying him in his toes,” or whatever was going on in the book.)

I guess people feel some inhibition about intervening in a child’s religious instruction, but for some reason they don’t hesitate to criticize the intellectual stimulation of a child who is quietly enjoying it! Yesterday’s busybody upset me more than those in the past because she spoke to Lydia (not to me) and her tone was so condescending and scornful.

I was reading to 4-year-old Lydia from On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We’ve already read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, and she loved them.

We’d missed our bus and waited 20 minutes for the next one, reading all the time, so when we boarded the bus and got settled, I opened the book and picked up where we’d left off.  I’d been reading for about two minutes and was literally in mid-sentence when this person stuck her face in between Lydia and the book and said–at about double the volume I’d been using–“How do you like the novel?  Who’s the protagonist?”

The way she spoke and the expression in her eyes are hard to convey in writing.  She was just exactly like one of those popular girls who looks around the playground, spots a geeky kid happily using her mind, and zooms over to say something like, “Your mom thinks you’re really smart.”  Every word oozed disdain, but the actual words were chosen such that a verbatim transcript would prove that she said nothing wrong but was only trying to have a friendly conversation–as she’d explain with big, innocent eyes if the geek told the teacher that this girl was bothering her.

Given my experience with this kind of girl and my even stronger feelings about an adult who’s still behaving that way, my instinctive reaction was, “Fuck off, bitch!  How about taking that phone out of your toddler’s hands and giving her some attention instead of interrupting our story?!”  (Her kid was about 20 months old and engrossed in some kind of blinking, beeping frenzy that she was holding 4 inches from her eyes.)

So I didn’t say anything because I knew I couldn’t say anything nice, and I thought if the conversation was just between her and Lydia we’d be able to get back to our story more quickly.

Lydia doesn’t know the words novel and protagonist.  It would be fine if she’d happened to pick them up, but I don’t push vocabulary on my kids–I just talk to them and read to them.  Lydia gave the busybody a cold stare with furrowed eyebrows.  Busybody rephrased: “What’s happening in the story?  Who’s the main character?”

Lydia perked up.  “Well, Mary and Laura are sisters.  Ma is their mom, Pa is their dad, and Carrie is their baby.  They’re all sad because grasshoppers ate their wheat.”

Busybody’s jaw dropped.  She clearly hadn’t expected that a child could understand a book and/or speak that well. She was momentarily speechless.

Lydia added, “The grasshoppers came in a glitter cloud.”  Busybody tried to regain her conversational footing: “Ooohh!  So they were, like, fairies?”  Lydia sighed, “No!” and tried to explain how the grasshoppers arrived in a swarm that blocked the sun so that the light glittered through their wings.

Busybody interrupted, “It’s so great that your mom reads you books.”  [Again with the tone–it was like she meant, “Your mom is one of those overachieving dweebs with the flashcards.”]  She turned toward me and said, “My 9-year-old never wanted to listen to books.”  I looked pointedly at her video-doped toddler and said, in my most understanding tone, “It can take some time to show them that reading is the thing to do.”  That went right over Busybody’s head as she asked Lydia, “How old are you–about 8?”

Maybe she was kidding.  I hope that, having watched a 9-year-old grow through all his ages so far, she realized that a person Lydia’s size with a full set of baby teeth must be no older than 6, and she was guessing higher just to be silly.  But she seemed genuinely astounded that Lydia is only 4.  She gasped and gushed over Lydia’s vocabulary and intelligence as I sat there thinking:

It is sad that Lydia is as unusual as she is.  Yes, she probably has a genetic advantage: Both Daniel and I are the kind of people who scored in the top 1% on the SAT and stuff, so our children are likely to have an easier time than the average child developing intellectual skills or to gain those skills at an earlier age.  But any child can learn more, faster, better than she otherwise would, if you gently encourage her to pick up the skills that help us access and absorb ideas.  Reading is one important part of this.

Yet in all my years of commuting by public transit with preschool Nicholas, in the year and a half I’ve been commuting with Lydia so far, in the years I commuted alone, I have only ever seen one other parent reading aloud to a child!  (He was my Orthodox Jewish neighbor, reading Bible stories in Hebrew to his 3-year-old.)  Half a dozen times, I’ve met someone who felt I seemed so familiar and eventually realized I was that mom who reads to her kid on the bus, and they told me how wonderful that is.  Yes, it’s wonderful!  It’s fun for me, too! Why don’t more parents do it?!

(Daniel gets motion sickness if he reads in a moving vehicle.  That’s a fairly common problem, so it explains why some parents don’t read on the bus.  I don’t want anyone with this disadvantage to feel judged!)

Reading is not just our entertainment on the bus, at the bus stop, on long car trips, on airplanes.  It’s also a daily part of life at home.  It’s our default method of entertainment.  I model this for our kids by reading to myself a lot of the time, as well as reading to them.

I’m planning another article with tips for increasing reading in your child’s life at each age.  For now, I just needed to get this story off my chest, to explain why I think reading to children ought to be a more normal behavior than it is.

Unfortunately, the people who most need these articles . . . probably won’t read them.

7 thoughts on “Our kids understand books because we read them books!

  1. I wish I’d been on the bus to witness all of this. I might have given you a high five when you said this line.

    “It can take some time to show them that reading is the thing to do.”

    Bravo Mama. Excellent, subtle, scorching response. 😂

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