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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Anticipation
January 21, 2009 - 1:07am

Last Tuesday my 7-year-old came home from school and proudly showed off his new library book about a super-hero who wears nothing but a cape and tighty-whitey underwear (I won’t mention the name lest it be quoted as an endorsement. Just ask any 7-year-old or parent of elementary-aged children if you’re not sure what I mean. A clue: he’s addressed as “Captain.”). The books in this series are full of potty humor—perfect for second graders—but a little too much for parents. My son had for a long time now been begging me to read the books from this series to him, but as incentive for him to spend time reading, (and because I wasn’t too keen on including them in our calming bedtime reading routine) I told him he’d have to read them on his own. And now almost overnight he can read them! Chapter books! Hooray! Suddenly the magic of reading has opened up for him and he’s now easily engrossed in a book, to the point where he tunes everything else out and stays up way too late reading. Be careful what we wish for? Not in this case—my husband and I are thrilled for him. We’ve waited in eager anticipation for him to have the confidence to read on his own.

It’s not that we worried about his lack of desire to read. We just couldn’t help but project ourselves onto him. How could he not love reading? I mean, as academics, what else do we do? We’ve always been avid readers, at least that’s how we remember our childhoods, and naively we’ve had some expectation that our son would quickly take to reading and immerse himself in books. And I was one of those crazy mothers who read to him from day one! Although we tried very hard not to pressure him, our son must have picked up on our unexpressed expectations. He was hostile any time we suggested that he read aloud to us. And, full disclosure, our expectations had perhaps been unrealistic because our son attends a French immersion school and as such has the double duty of learning to read in French at school and in English at home. However, it’s been amazing to see how the decoding skills have transferred from one language to the other. By the middle of first grade he could read equally well in both languages; he just didn’t seem to enjoy it either way.

My husband and I both see another a side of us in our son, and this may be part of why he was so stymied by reading. For better or worse, like us he is a chronic perfectionist. From conversations I’ve had with other academic parents, it seems that lots of our kids share this trait. Sometimes this means our children do very careful, meticulous work, but other times they find themselves frustrated by the inability to live up to their own expectations. The pressure to excel comes not from external sources like teachers or parents, but from within themselves. Our son will spend all of the time allotted for a particular class activity carefully coloring every blade of grass in a picture, then not have enough time to finish the assignment. But he will have been working guided by his internalized vision of what the completed project should look like. Similarly, in reading aloud he would focus so hard on a particular word that the meaning of the sentence was lost. If we’d gently offer to help, he’d become angry with himself that he couldn’t do it alone and give up.

We’ve had wonderful guidance from our son’s teachers since kindergarten. They weren’t at all concerned, and pointed out that boys usually lag behind girls in reading proficiency at first. So we backed way off, encouraged and praised every attempt, and read aloud to him several times a day (everything but the underwear books, that is). His teachers predicted that the magic transition to being a self-motivated reader would happen halfway through second grade. And voila! Teachers really know kids.

Now the bald guy in white briefs and all the books about him are welcome in our house! And I’m so pleased that I can’t edit anymore when I read lines of colorful language aloud to my son: “That says ‘fart’, Mom, not ‘toot’!” Sigh!


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