There are some parenting mistakes that, in hindsight, seem really glaringly obvious.
Letting Ruby eat three whole cinnamon rolls for breakfast – she said they were delicious! – was clearly a bad idea, as I found out two hours later when I had to pick her up at school because she had a tummyache.
Letting her watch Untold Stories of the True and Truly Traumatic ER (or some variation on that theme) was clearly as bad idea, as I found out when she woke me up in the middle of the night after a terrifying dream about a giant tapeworm.
There are some parenting mistakes that I didn’t make but that Ruby’s dad did, which I realized when she said sweetly one night, “Mom, you’re such a nice mom. I’m glad you’re not like that mean mom in that movie I watched with Dad. That movie scared me out of my mind.”
“What movie?” I asked. “What movie with a mean mom scared you? Tangled? That’s not scary, Ru.”
“No, it wasn’t animated,” she said. “I forget the name, but I started crying because the mom was freaking out and hitting her daughter and yelling about wire hangers.”
“Oh, my God, he let you watch Mommie Dearest?!”
“Yes! That’s what it was called. I’m glad you’re not like that mom, Mom.”
Once before, I found myself saying something I never expected to say to a child – “Ruby, I promise I won’t let you die like Elvis!” – because she was reluctant to alternate Tylenol and Advil when she was near-delirious with a fever and she started panicking that she was “going to die like that fat singer guy who took too many pills and died on the toilet.”
This time, I heard myself say, “Ruby, I promise I will never be as crazy as Joan Crawford.”
Anyway, yes, mistakes have been made, many mistakes, and she’s only 8.
The one thing I really couldn’t see doing much differently is trying to raise her to love reading. I did everything the parenting advice says you’re supposed to do!
I read her stories when she was in the womb, one hand on my stomach, one hand turning the pages. I read her my favorite childhood book the night she was born, gently cradling her in one arm and whispering the words. I read her board books when she was preverbal, and once she was old enough to request particular books, I always read them to her when she asked. Every night at bedtime, she’d pick up to 10 books, and I’d read them all, read until I was hoarse. When she started to want to read herself, I bought early reader books and phonics tools; I was careful, however, not to go overboard and make reading seem like a chore. I followed her lead on what she found interesting. And as far as letting her see me reading, that was effortless. I read every chance I get – I read the paper, I read magazines, I read novels. I love to read. (Mind you, I am not at all reading high-quality stuff, but I think reading fluff still counts.)
Ruby is a fluent reader now, but she has staunchly refused to read “chapter books,” still preferring to get her 20 minutes of school-required reading per night by reading simple picture books. She tests above her grade level, so it’s not proficiency that’s holding her back; it’s just stubbornness.
She did this with being read chapter books, too, and I found it as maddening back then as I do now.
“Seriously, why won’t you read chapter books?” I’ve asked repeatedly.
And she says, strictly no-nonsense: “I can’t see the pictures in my head when I read. I need an artist to draw the pictures.”
“But Ruby,” I say, “that’s the best part about reading. You can make your own pictures in your head!”
Once I even went and grabbed one of my favorite childhood books off of her bookshelf, Rabble Starkey by Lois Lowry, and I read my favorite passage to her. In it, the father in the story is reading aloud to the whole family:
“He turned through the pages until he found the story he remembered from when he was younger. ‘The Red Pony,’ he read. ‘That’s the title.’ Then he began…. While Mr. Bigelow read, I could hardly take my eyes from him and from the book in his hand. …I knew that each one of us could see it in our own minds. And probably we saw different things. A book with no pictures lets you make your own pictures in your mind. A guy who writes a book like that really trusts the people who read it to make the kind of pictures he wants them to. Of course he helps them along with the words. Like Mr. Steinbeck told us all about that old dog named Smasher having only one ear because the other got bit off by a coyote, and how his one good ear stood up higher than the ear on a regular coyote. So we could all picture Smasher in our minds, just the way he was supposed to be, but at the same time each of us had our own private Smasher, built out of all the dogs we had ever known.”
“Isn’t that cool?” I said. (I really, legitimately think that’s cool, and it completely blew my mind when I first read the book when I was about Ruby’s age.)
“No,” she said. “I can’t do it. I can’t make my own pictures.”
I sighed. “Get your reading points however you want to for school, Ruby, but I really would like to see you challenge yourself. I will get any book you want from the library or put it on the Kindle or whatever you want – just please try to read chapter books. I know you can do it!”
In the meantime, I took suggestions from my friends on books they had loved as kids or that their kids loved now.
Some of the suggestions were ones I’d tried already with disappointing results: Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, E.B. White, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Roald Dahl – my own beloved favorites.
Some of them gave me new reading material – Peppermints in the Parlor, Three Times Lucky, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder – but Ruby wouldn’t touch ‘em.
One night, frustrated, she burst into tears and said, “All I really want to read is Junie B. Jones books, but you said I wasn’t allowed to read them because she’s a bad kid and the grammar is horrible!”
“I never said that!” I said, appalled.
Imagine: me, banning books! Unthinkable!
Then I slowly remember that I had in fact kind of said just that. Only kinda. Kinda sorta maybe. OK, I did pretty much say that.
Junie B. Jones is a brat. She just is. That’s like the whole point of the series, I think: that she does things that maybe the kids reading secretly want to do. And yeesh, the grammar. It almost causes me physical pain to read those books out loud.
I love Barbara Park, the author, but Junie B. Jones just doesn’t do it for me.
I did not, though, prohibit Ruby from reading them – she owns several of them – nor did I have any inkling that she was absolutely aching to read them. She had certainly never mentioned it till now.
And that was my first clue as to what her real motivation was: not avoiding chapter books so much as pushing my buttons. If the only book she claims she wants to read is more or less the only book I have expressed explicit disapproval of … well, that says a lot.
“By all means,” I said. “Read Junie B. Jones books! Read anything you like! I don’t like the books, but that doesn’t mean you can’t like them! I just want you to read chapter books!”
She read one chapter and promptly lost interest. We were back to Square 1, except that now I knew my encouragement was making it worse. I was reluctant to try reverse psychology and forbid her to read books I wanted her to read – I suspect that would have worked like a charm, but it would have sent a long-term message I didn’t want to send – so I decided to adopt a neutral position of leaving Ruby’s reading habits up to Ruby.
“As of right now, Ruby, I no longer care if you read chapter books,” I said calmly. “You can read 50 picture books to get your reading points or one chapter book, but I do not care how you do it. I am out of this fight. I know you can read harder books, and I think you’ll like them, but I do not care.”
She came home this week with a 480-page book called The Candymakers. She is three chapters in and cannot stop reading it. “I see the pictures in my head with this book!” she said. “I finally get it. I can even, like, smell and taste the candy!”
I have read a little bit of it myself and can’t quite get into it; it seems too derivative of the Willy Wonka books. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that I don’t care.
The parenting magazines never told me that – although I have long-suspected that the people who write parenting advice would be stymied by my headstrong, brilliant, stubborn older daughter – but it turns out that not caring was the secret all along.