Saturday, August 11, 2012

Too much of a good thing

One night this week, Tuesday I believe, my son was fully immersed in pretending that he was a bat. This culminated in a near-meltdown after the second or third time I had to go back into his room after putting him to bed, because he refused to stay in bed, which turned out to be due largely to the fact that he was literally falling out of bed trying to find a way to sleep head-down and feet-up like a bat in a cave does; I insisted that he was going to have to pretend he was a bat in his mind only and keep his body physically oriented on the bed in a more traditional configuration, and he did not take kindly to that. But prior to that it was fairly cute, with him ending everything he said with a high-pitched echolocation-emulating “eek!eek!eek!” and informing me that when I tucked him in for bed I should say “good morning” and when I got him up the following day I should say “good night” because, of course, bats are nocturnal. At any rate, given the little guy’s propensity for immersing himself in pretend play that is rooted in specific fictional works (Cars, Mickey’s Clubhouse, The Jungle Book) which can be hard to keep up and play along with if you flub the direct quoting of lines of dialogue from said works, it was somewhat reassuring to see him playacting something a bit more creatively freeform and interpretive.

But, on the other hand, one downer element of him pretending to be a bat was that we skipped his bedtime story altogether that night, at his insistence. Technically he was insisting that we keep the lights in his bedroom off even as he got ready for bed, because bats like the dark, but when I informed him that no lights meant I couldn’t read him a story, he willingly gave up story time to maintain the bat-in-a-cave motif. I clearly didn’t want to be a spoilsport about that, but in the back of my mind I very much hoped it was a one-time thing because I really enjoy reading to him. (And it was in fact a one-time thing, so, whew.)

Of course that day is coming, I know, when the bedtime story ritual will more or less naturally fade away on its own. On occasion I’ve thought about how it would be fun to read through the Harry Potter books together, a few pages per night, a re-read for me but the first time for the little guy. He’d need to be a lot older, of course – seven? Nine? But in those three to five years from now, a lot can happen, and I can’t necessarily take for granted that he’ll still be expecting to be read to nightly by the time YA novels would be appropriate.

Sometimes it seems like he’ll be reading on his own really soon. He’s not reading yet, but he has gotten us to read the same favorite books over and over again enough times at this point that he essentially has them memorized. So he can sit by himself with a book on his lap and turn the pages and recite what’s on each page, which if nothing else is at least a form of practicing the motions of independent reading. Unsurprisingly, the reigning champ of the bookshelf at this point is the oversized compendium of Mater’s Tall Tales, and the little guy’s recent preference is to open the book across his knees and hold a Cars toy in each hand, corresponding to ones that appear in the story he’s “reading”, and recite the narration and dialogue (with voice acting!) while acting out the scenes with his props, driving the car-characters around on top of the pictures on the pages. When he gets to the end of one story, he sets the book down, swaps for cars which star in the next one, then sets everything up all over again.

It is fundamentally adorable when he does this, no question, but I find myself roiling with mixed emotions over it. I’ve noticed him engaging in the toys-on-books reenactments mostly in the evenings when my wife is at work and I’m juggling both kids and his little sister, who is sixteen months old and a high-energy, high-decibel handful of age-appropriate neediness, demands 99 % of my attention. So it’s kind of a godsend that there’s this relatively quiet, safe, self-contained activity the little guy derives so much pleasure from. And as I said, it’s somewhat pattern-forming for actual reading down the road. There is no way that an entertainment-consuming, English-degreed bibliophile geek like me could possibly have a problem with that, right?

I want my kids to be smart, not because of any notions I have of how their intellect reflects on my own in the eyes of the rest of the world, or how conversationally compatible I want us to be as our parent-child relationships evolve over the years, but just because I want them to be happy and I genuinely believe life is easier on balance when you’re smart. School, higher ed, getting a good job – I don’t want any of those major mainstream milestones to be a struggle, which they are less likely to be if you are smart. Yes, I know, there’s more to life than those things, and a lot of things that tend to make people happy fall outside of those structures and institutions, and I know (by argument and by experience) that there are particularly burdensome aspects of being smart in various scenarios, but as I said – on balance, smart trumps not smart, that’s my conviction. And being well-read, and being good at reading, go a long way for reaping those benefits of being on the smart end of things. If it were actually in my power to make an up-or-down decision as to whether or not my kids would be drawn to books and reading, I’d opt them in every time.

I was drawn to books and reading at a very young age, and I think that worked out for me pretty well. But I also learned over the years how many pitfalls my extreme bookishness steered me towards. People thought I was weird, and I simply didn’t notice the funny looks they gave me at the time because my nose was always buried in a book. But I put a lot of things together in retrospect, and the truth is that I know how I turned out to be good at school and managed to breeze into a fairly comfortable adult life, but I have no idea how I turned out remotely well-adjusted rather than emotionally stunted and socially inept. I think a lot of it may have been pure luck. And if I pushed my children towards reading, and they over-developed that portion of their respective brains and personalities but failed to catch the same breaks I did in terms of cultivating different aspects of being a human who’s not completely insufferable … I would feel terrible, it should go without saying.

I recognize that I’m being overly dramatic, not to mention somewhat delusional in estimating how much I can control how my offspring turn out one way or the other based on my actions, inactions, or incessant overthinking in-between. (Although if the main purpose of this blog isn’t getting those overwrought thoughts processed and out of my head, and I don’t rightly know what I’m doing here.) For now, the little guy is simply physically incorporating books into the mix of toys he plays with, in a really amusing way. He doesn’t do this forsaking any and all other forms of activity and/or interaction. There is nothing to worry about, nothing to see here. I just really, really want to see how it’s all going to play itself out.

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