In Why I’m Like This Rumbling Volcano (And Why You Should Be, Too), I stressed the importance of remaining firm about the expectations you have of your children when it comes to their language development.
At the same time—and I just learned this lesson sharply—it’s vital to remember that there’s a fine line between being firm and being rigid. Being firm is productive, but being too firm crosses the line into being rigid, and that’s counterproductive ground. The challenge lies in being able to recognize when you’ve crossed that line—because every circumstance is naturally different—and then taking action to correct the misstep.
But let me tell you what happened with my daughter this week. I think this story will help make my point clear, and highlight the importance of this issue for every parent raising a bilingual child.
Crossing the line
I’ve mentioned before that my daughter, who turned 9 in June, has become a capable reader in English, our minority language, and yet isn’t the natural bookworm my younger son is: generally speaking, Lulu would much rather dance about with a book on her head than sit down and quietly turn the pages.
At the same time, she continues to make progress through the reading we do together—taking turns, page by page—for about 15 minutes each day. In this way, since the time she was 4, she has gradually advanced from reading The Cat in the Hat to Harry Potter. (A lot of progress can be made in 15 minutes a day!)
However, as Lulu reached this higher level of literacy, her attitude toward reading—even reading with me—seemed to sour. Even when I let her choose the book—and she expressed genuine enthusiasm about the idea of reading Harry Potter—she still actively resisted our daily reading sessions. Again, she’s a capable reader, and Harry Potter isn’t too hard for her, but she would mumble her way through the pages in a monotone voice, frequently misreading even simple words, itching to flee as soon as she could.
But I held firm, hoping that if we simply pressed ahead, the situation would improve: as her ability continued to grow, I was betting she could come to read these harder texts more smoothly, with more emotion and enjoyment. So we forged on through the first Harry Potter, and got halfway through the second, but I finally realized—just this week—that being firm wasn’t working this time, that, in fact, I had crossed the line into being rigid. And if I continued in this way, there was a real danger that I could make her even more reluctant to read. It was now plain that my efforts had become counterproductive.
The problem with Harry Potter
“Why do you read like that?” I asked her in the midst of another joyless session of reading. “You’re a good reader, but you read like a zombie and you make so many mistakes. What’s the problem? You said you wanted to read the Harry Potter books so I got them for you. If you don’t really want to read them, we can read something else.”
And Lulu sighed and said: “I want to read them, but the words are so small.”
The words are so small.
The truth is, Lulu had complained about this once or twice before, but I hadn’t really been paying enough attention. Again, I simply assumed that she would gradually get used to the smaller-print size of more advanced material.
But I was wrong. In her case, moving from the larger type of chapter books to the smaller type of books like Harry Potter has been a psychological burden: it’s intimidating and tiring, and it takes the joy right out of reading—even when she’s interested in the story itself. One day, probably one day soon, she’ll be ready to read more “adult books,” but not yet, not now.
And so I closed Harry Potter and I pulled a chapter book off the shelf, one that she hadn’t read. The reading level of this book is easier, that’s true, but the mere fact that the words are larger, with more white space on the page, seemed to help her plunge right in. And her performance was suddenly so different: not only did she read smoothly and expressively, with rarely an error, but she wanted to continue reading, even when I gave her the option of stopping.
The takeaway today?
Be firm as long as it’s productive; when it becomes counterproductive, that’s being rigid.
In this case, it took me too long to see that I had slipped from being firm to being rigid, and the result over the past few months has clearly been counterproductive to my aims. I mean, I want my daughter to be delighted about reading, not depressed! After all, the more positively she feels toward books, the more likely she’ll pick them up on her own and fuel her own progress. (Then I can lie in my hammock. )
My pledge, then, is to stay more mindful of this fine line between being firm and being rigid. And when I do sense that I’ve crossed the line, and the result is counterproductive, I’ll try to pivot more quickly in a productive direction.
Right now, actually, I’m searching for a new series for Lulu, one that not only offers stories she’ll find appealing, the text itself is printed in type that’s large enough for her to read with ease!
NOTE: Since this article was posted, one reader, Tatyana, suggested the perfect solution to this problem: simply use an e-reader and enlarge the size of the font! As I don’t have an e-reader yet—I’ve been intent on flooding my house with physical books while the kids are small—this idea hadn’t even occurred to me. But now it’s clear that e-books have very useful advantages of their own!
For another learning experience with my daughter, see When You Screw Up Badly as a Parent.
I would compare learning to read, especially in a minority language, to learning a musical instrument. Although you can play difficult pieces and work hard on improving your skills, you enjoy going back to the easy ones because you can now play and enjoy them so much better than when you were learning them.
Back to books, my daughter, now 10, is a prolific reader but she still picks up picture stories and pop-up books. Don’t rush Lulu, she will pick up the harder books in her own time. I think rushing our kids to get them to achieve the next target that we as parents set them is one of the big mistakes we make in their upbringing. Rather than enjoying them here and now we are always pushing them forward and in a way missing their childhood… On the other hand, of course we need to encourage them to try and improve and to succeed. Not easy 🙂 Some books that Šárka enjoyed before reading Harry Potter (she’s reading the series for the third time at the moment!!!): Jacqueline Wilson – brilliant books for girls, Famous Five and Secret Seven, Michael Morpurgo books, David Walliams books for kids, Roald Dahl of course. Just a few to start you off if you haven’t read them already.
Jana, thanks so much for this comment. Your thoughts are wise and a necessary reminder for us all. There’s definitely another fine line here between encouraging and pushing, and I need to be sensitive to that. In fact, I’ll probably hear your voice in my head when Lulu and I choose our next book! (Cheers for the recommendations!)
And I love the analogy to playing a musical instrument—it really resonates.