Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A: Attitudes, Aptitudes and Academics OR It All Begins With Love

     "You don't have kids of your own yet, do ya?!" said the parent sitting on the other side of the desk, finger madly stabbing the air in front of my face. "If ya did, ya wouldn't be so smug!"

     The Mom leaned back in her chair, arms folded.  "One day, you'll see!  It's not so easy to just drop everything and read with your kids at night!  You teachers are always asking for too much!"

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     Over the 26 years that I have been a teacher, I have had, literally, hundreds and hundreds of interviews with parents who had questions or, who wanted more information, about some aspect of their child's performance at school.  Being a teacher of students in the Primary grades (ages 6-9), many of these interviews have dealt with issues related to Reading.  Of those issues related to Reading, most have been simply, "What can I do, as a parent, to help my child become a better reader?"   I have heard that question, in one form or another, again and again. My immediate response has always been the same, "If you want your child to love reading and to develop their skills as a reader then, read with them every night."

     The advice is simple and standard and yet, has profound implications for helping a child develop a lifelong love of reading. While not every child who is read to goes on to develop a lifelong love of reading; most do. While not every child who is exposed to the rich language of wordsmiths goes on to write with confidence; many do. While not every child whose imaginations are stretched by tales of Arabian Nights and dragons and spaceships goes on to be a thinker of great ideas; the chances are far more likely that they will.  Our society needs poets and artists and ponderers who use their love of language to bring fresh perspectives to our everyday lives.  Becoming literate and, loving it, paves the way for so much that is possible in the future lives of children.
    Read with your children every night. Read with them every night.  Read with them each and every night.

      When I was in the early years of my career, I gave that advice to parent after parent......and, I did so with much professional confidence. The connection between reading to child, in a nurturing manner, in their formative years and the subsequent development of positive attitudes toward reading and improved academic performance seemed beyond reproach. Each time I offered the advice, the response from the parents would always come in the form of nodding heads and mumbled promises to do better to make reading more of a part of their daily routines at home.  There was only one exception to this scenario and it was the mother who waved her finger in my face and  said, "You don't have kids of your own yet, do ya?!"   At the time, her implication that I was, somehow, precluded from dispensing advice to parents because I, myself, wasn't one, seemed offensive to me!  I was a professional educator, after all!  The Spock-like logic of my advice held true regardless of the status of my private life as single and still looking.  Didn't it?

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    About half-way through my career, I met the lady who would go on to become my wife.  We fell in love, married on the seaside on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and, after a few years, we were successful in becoming pregnant with our first child.   Prior to meeting my wife, I had always felt as though my life was a pretty good one. But, once she came along, it was as if my world that had been in shades of gray, suddenly exploded into a rainbow of colours. And then, when we found out that a baby was on the way, my life rose to an even higher plateau still!  I was amazed at how rich and full  my life had become. I was happier than I had ever been.

     As expectant parents, my wife and I attended all the pre-natal classes we could manage, we read all of the parenting books on the market and we soaked up the advice our of family members and friends.  We felt prepared and ready as we could be.  

    The most transformative moment of my life happened the moment that our baby was born and the doctor wrapped her in swaddling clothes, placed her in my arms and said, "Congratulations, dad!  You have a beautiful daughter."   I was completed stunned and dazzled by this little girl who weighed barely more than a loaf of bread.  She was perfect!  Her finger nails were perfect!  Her eyelashes were perfect!  She smelled so good!  And, she felt so good in my arms, as if she had always been there, next to my heart, forever.  I swear that my peripheral vision clouded and the whole outside world disappeared and there was no one left except my little girl and me........and, of course, my wife, who was still laying on the birthing bed, waiting for me to show her our daughter.

    At that moment, as my daughter snuggled into the crook of my arm, I knew that I wanted that feeling to never end.  I had never felt more alive than when that tiny heartbeat echoed mine. As I stood there holding her, the notion of re-creating that connection, that feeling of closeness, was going to become one of the cornerstones of my life. I was drunk on fatherhood. I loved that little girl so much.  Never had the joy of life been more evident and the path ahead, more clear.

    It wasn't long before my teacher instincts kicked in and I realized that one of the best way to re-create that feeling of closeness with my daughter was to hold her and read to her.  So, even though she was mere hours old, she was read to and sung to and talked to.  The words passed from me and from my wife, to our daughter, acting as seeds for future academic growth. The love with which we passed on those words and the warmth from our bodies to hers, conveyed a physical sensation of pleasure that she came to associate with words.  Luckily for her, she grew up surrounded by people (my mother, my in-laws, aunts, uncles, friends) who all loved her too.  To be born into a love-filled family is a treasure beyond belief.  To couple that love with books and songs and words galore, is a sure fire recipe for a literate life.

    My daughter will be turning eight years old this April. In her lifetime, she has read or has heard thousands of books.  As part of our daily routine, I read with her every night before bedtime . Being next to someone she loves, surrounded by the softness and warmth of her blankets, listening to the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Mary Pope Osborne and others, wash over her, fuelling her dreams, is her favourite part of the day.  It is mine, too.  Every time we settle down to read our bedtime stories, the real world shrinks and our world, our time, emerges and we are content. We are alone, together and life is perfect.

    As I walk away from my daughter's bedroom, after I have kissed her and turned off her light, I often reflect upon how lucky we both are to have these moments together.  And, every now and again, I think about that Mom, at that long ago parent-teacher interview, waving her finger under my nose and saying, "One day, you'll see!!! It's not so easy to drop everything and read with your kids at night!" When I think of her now, from the perspective of a parent, I have to agree that she is right in one respect, I have acquired a greater appreciation for the role of being a parent.  It is a full-time job and a responsibility like no other in life.  There is little down time and a lot of energy is needed to get everyone through their day.  I understand that so much better now than I did when her words first rang out and my hackles became raised and I thought she was so out of line.  

     However, on the other hand, I think about what she has missed and what her chidlren have missed and it makes me so sad.   What a tremendous loss of opportunity to bond with your child!   Reading with my daughter is not something that I ever "make time" to do.  It is something that I clear the schedule for, instead.  It is treasured, precious time and it always comes first in my priorities, regardless of how hectic things may be. In our home, at the end of the day, there is nothing more important, as a parent, than the love I have for my children. If I can channel that love in such a way that it helps them develop positive attitudes and aptitudes then, so much the better.

     As a consequent of maturing and experiencing parenthood, my advice to parents
who asks me now for advice on how to help their child become a better reader has changed slightly but, remains simple:    It all begins with Love.