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When You Screw Up Badly as a Parent

April 30, 2013

Lulu in tearsI screwed up badly the other day.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably recall these two things about my daughter:

  1. Lulu is a bouncy 8-year-old who would much rather be dancing then reading a book.
  2. She’s also rather high-strung and has a tendency to burst into tears in moments of frustration.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet—and it’s something I’ll eventually devote a whole post to—are my recent efforts to spark a stronger desire to read in both my kids and my students through the use of graphic novels.

The truth is, I feel a kinship with reluctant readers, like Lulu, because I was once one myself. That might come as a surprise, considering I’m now so nutty for books and reading, but in my youth I read very few books at all. In fact, the only thing I would read, really, were comic books.

Those stacks of comic books, though, enabled me to continue reading, and grow as a reader, despite my reluctance to pick up other books. As researcher Stephen Krashen points out in The Power of Reading, “There is evidence that light reading [like comic books] can serve as a conduit to heavier reading. It can help readers not only develop the linguistic competence for harder reading but can also develop an interest in books.”

In my case, this is exactly what happened: Reading comic books during my younger years gradually led to wider, more enthusiastic reading as I got older. (See How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers for much more on this subject.)

And so, with my own past in mind, I thought I would try providing graphic novels to the reluctant readers I work with, including my own daughter. For Lulu (and Roy, though he’s a more eager reader than his sister), I investigated graphic novels that are geared for elementary school kids, then placed a first order for a handful of titles that I hoped would appeal to them.

One of these books is a spirited science fiction adventure called Zita the Spacegirl. And it was this little book that set in motion my major screw-up.

“I finished the book!”

Zita the SpacegirlActually, Zita the Spacegirl was the second graphic novel I gave them. The first one, which I thought would be an easier introduction to the genre, was a simple story about a bird and a squirrel entitled, well, Bird & Squirrel, and I was happy to see Lulu and Roy each read the whole book in one sitting.

But Zita the Spacegirl is a more complex story, with more difficult text. Could they really follow it, and read it?

On Saturday afternoon I showed Lulu the book. “It’s an exciting story,” I told her. “It’s about a girl’s adventure.”

To be honest, I half-expected her to just glance at the cover and skip away, but she took it from my hand and curled right up in the chair in my office. Pleased at this show of interest, I turned back to my computer to resume my own work.

The next hour passed in silence as she quietly pawed the pages. Then, much sooner than I imagined possible, she sprang from the chair and chirped with a proud, happy grin, “I finished the book!”

Bad, bad Daddy

You might expect that I responded something like, “Wow! Good for you! Tell me about it!”

After all, the whole point of getting these graphic novels was to motivate her to read with greater interest, and that’s apparently what had just happened.

But no, my reaction was very different. Oh, it’s true, I was exhausted from a long day, but that’s no excuse for the fact that I responded in a way that was not only unkind, it was utterly counterproductive to my aim.

“You couldn’t have read the whole book that quickly!” I snapped.

Lulu’s beaming face fell instantly and she burst into tears.

“I did!” she protested. “I really did!” And she flew from the room to seek comfort from my wife.

For the next 10 minutes I sat there shaking my head. Bad Daddy. Bad, bad Daddy.

Meanwhile, Lulu was in the kitchen, determined to convince Keiko that she was telling the truth by recounting the story to her in Japanese.

Finally, flushed with victory after proving her case to Keiko, she strode back into my office. “Mommy believes me!” she declared with some defiance.

“Lulu, come here,” I said softly. She may be nearly 9, but she’s a small girl and still fits easily on my lap. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you could read it that fast. Could you tell me the story in English?”

And she did, even explaining the whole complicated tale better than I could myself.

Actions that support your aims

What’s the lesson here? (I mean, apart from apologizing to your kids when you mess up!)

When it comes to your aims for your children’s language development, be very careful that you’re not somehow undermining your own objectives through the actions you take.

My blundering response to my daughter illustrates this point clearly. In fact, it’s almost comical how wrongheaded this knee-jerk reaction was when compared with my goal. Fortunately, I don’t think this particular mistake will cause any lasting harm to my aim or (more importantly) the bond with my child.

Other actions, though, can have more far-reaching consequences. I discuss this more fully in Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress?, but one example would be electronic gadgets. Because giving children such gadgets in the majority language can end up strengthening that language at the expense of the minority language, it could be wiser to inhibit their use in your home and instead provide similar devices in the minority tongue.

As parents of bilingual children, our task is to stay awake to our greater goals and take actions that will best support those aims. We all screw up from time to time (particularly when our energy is low), but we have to allow for that, give ourselves a little grace when mistakes occur, then plod onward for another day.

I know our kids might find this hard to believe, but their parents are human, too!

How about you? How have you messed up with your own kids? What did you learn from it?

1 Jane May 2, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Oh dear, I had to laugh. But only because that’s the kind of thing I would do. I always say it’s good for kids to see that we’re not perfect, otherwise they’d grow up with impossible expectations of themselves.

I sometimes find myself missing chances to converse in English (our minority language) just because I’m too tired. One of the kids will be telling me something, usually when I’m trying to concentrate on something else, and I’ll suddenly notice that I’m only responding with “yeah” and “hmm”, rather than grasping the opportunity to maybe encourage them to tell me in English, throw in some new vocab, or whatever. Of course talking to one’s kids is important regardless of bilingualism, lol. I’m sure with puberty round the corner the day will come soon enough when they don’t want to talk to me at all.

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2 Adam May 3, 2013 at 7:55 am

Jane, thanks for returning the laugh! Yes, I should remind myself more often of the fact that one day, when my kids have become silent, brooding teens, I’ll be wishing they were still chatterboxes!

For a while there my policy was “Engage with every interruption,” but lately, amid some hectic days, I seem to have forgotten this. The truth is, whatever work seems “urgent” in the moment can usually wait; for the most part, our children and their desire to interact with us should be seen as the priority. Each “interruption” is a fleeting opportunity for both language development and bonding.

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3 Roger May 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Adam, this is an interesting coincidence. Just the other day as my daughter was trying to tell me something of importance (to her) I realized I was not really listening to her (I was doing the immensely important task of washing the dishes), so I stopped, sat down so we were at eye level, and asked her to continue. All of our communication is in her second language (English) so I didn’t feel so much that this was a language moment, but that it was a communication moment between child and parent, and that I should, needed to, attend to her. Your post was a good reminder that these times are fleeting and we, as parents, need to truly listen to our children. Thanks.

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4 Adam May 7, 2013 at 8:38 am

Good for you, Roger. It can be so hard, amid our busy days, to stay awake to the fact that these moments truly are fleeting and missing them ultimately undermines our long-term goals for both our children’s language development and the bond that we build with them. It’s a daily challenge for us all, I think.

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5 Peter May 13, 2013 at 9:45 am

Like most busy parents, I, too, often blunder and say the wrong thing, or discourage them unwittingly. At the time this happens, I am usually too wired up to engage them, and the kids too upset to listen, but I try to take the time to offer an apology later. Kids are pretty good about things like that, and appreciate that parents are human too. When everyone is calmer things work out better.

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6 Adam May 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Peter, thanks for your comment. I certainly empathize with your thoughts. I guess the best we can do amounts to simply doing the best we can. (That’s my Zen koan for the day.)

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