Books and Bad Mommy Moment

You know those moments when you’re jogging along in life, head altogether someplace else and somebody says or does something that- WHAM- yanks you back in the time machine to revisit one of those Bad Mommy Moments? Those moments when you really blew it, you regret it, but you can’t change it and you still wonder just how much of a chain reaction of negative side effects you created for your poor guinea pig of a child?

That happened to me today, only it was more like one of those Bad Mommy two or three years. In the comments to this post, Brandy said,

“I, too, had my doubts when we first started reading The Wind in the Willows aloud. I was amazed to find my children (then 4 and 2) were more enchanted with Grahame’s work than any book we had read thus far! This experience taught me that I had done my children a disservice by thinking that they were unable to appreciate beautifully precise language. “

Oh, how that made me wince, because I learned that same lesson, but it took me much longer and my poor child was sadly shortchanged by my thickheadedness. While still probing that sore and tender spot in my memories, preparatory to burying it once more until some other accidental nudge made it flare up again, I thought, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t bury that. Maybe we should blog it. So people will understand why you are so passionate about this.”

As most of long time readers know, we have adopted children when they were older than ‘normal’ (approximately kindergarten age). This story involves one of those children in particular. The previous environment was not the nightmare that movies based on a true story are made of, but it wasn’t particularly healthful, nourishing, or nurturing, either. For example, I asked what sort of things the child liked to do, and I was told watch The Price is Right and another couple of game shows I didn’t know. There were no books that I know of. The diet included no vegetables. And when the child came (at very nearly four years of age) her vocabulary was considerably below that of the home-grown two year old already in our home. It made for a difficult transition- for both of us, but it was naturally especially confusing for her, poor lamb. She had no idea what was happening to her and why and she had not chosen anything about her situation.

I remember one afternoon in particular where she fell very hard on our tile floor and was howling loudly. I wanted desperately to see where she had hurt herself so I could check for bumps, bruises, concussion, or contusions. She was howling so loudly I was sure something was very wrong, so I was frantically feeling her, asking, “Where do you hurt?” She kept slapping the floor where she’d fallen and saying, “I hurt right there.” In her frustration with me, her cries were getting louder and shriller, and in my panic that a bone somewhere must surely be broken, I was getting louder and shriller as well (louder also just to make myself heard), asking some variation of, “But where are YOU hurt, where does it hurt? Where did your body get hurt?” And she answered every time by smacking the floor where she’d fallen and saying, “RIGHT HERE!” Suddenly I stopped, caught my breath and wracked my brains for a better way to do this. I asked her slowly and clearly, “Show me your boo-boo.”
She stopped screaming, showed me the place that hurt, and all ended well enough. This seems kind of funny now. But I was shaken.

I had not ever used the word ‘boo-boo’ with any of our other children. We simply never used ‘baby talk’ at our house. This was a seemingly minor incident, but I realized that although this was a domestic adoption where we presumably were taking one American child who basically shared our culture into another American home, there was a cultural divide and a language barrier I hadn’t even recognized, and it would have to be overcome.

Over the next few years we struggled and muddled our way through this, and I could not figure out how we were going to manage homeschooling her in the manner to which I become accustomed. We used REAL books, hard books, old books with complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary, words that many adults in our society no longer used. She came from an impoverished, barren background, and really struggled to learn to read, to learn how to listen to other people (she really didn’t know, having had few conversations with others). I put off using harder books with her because I thought if she was having so much trouble understanding the easy, straightforward stuff, she’d be lost with more advanced, complex imagery and vocabulary.

So for the next few years (2? 3?) we tried controlled vocabulary books, books that should have been easier for her, since they used words and situation she would be more likely to be familiar with. She struggled, and she felt frustrated. She felt like she wasn’t as bright as everybody else because other people read more, read harder, and read more interesting books than she did and she couldn’t understand her easy reading books.

I intended to get her reading up to a certain level using those books more suitable to a child of her background, years, and lack of vocabulary. I was doing what John Vernon and others in that comment thread- remembering that she didn’t know those hard words, so I should adjust my communications to her level. Then we’d gradually transition.

But we never got to anything like a transition level- two or three years after learning to read she was still stumbling through I Can Read books, unable to tell me almost anything about them when she finished. We read picture books to her, and she was included in other family read alouds, but we didn’t have her try her mind on any books for herself outside her easy reader level, because that would have been too hard.

And one day, after a night in prayer and tears, I thought, if I go on like this, she will never, ever, experience the wider world of delightful stories she reads for herself. She is already frustrated, and it can hardly frustrate her more to fail at something challenging and really hard and also interesting than it does to fail at something easy, insipid, and vapid.

So I pulled out King Midas and the Golden Touch (retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne). She was enchanted, wanted more, listened intently, wanted to know what happened next. She _cared_ about that story, that literary tale. She worked at it. It’s not as humiliating to miss a word with three syllables as it is to miss a word with three letters. It’s not embarrassing mispronounce Bacchus, not like mispronouncing ‘bag.’

When she was ten, we read through one of Plutarch’s lives, translated by North. This is college level stuff. Was it always easy? No. She cried at the start of that year, but I held her hand through it all and took it in easy paces and by the end of the year it was her favorite schoolbook. Will she ever be a scholarly and academic student? Probably not. Academics is not her strong point, but she has a billion and one other strong points, and she can READ, and read complex material. She can read and understand more than she ever would have if I’d continued to be afraid that it was too hard for her.

I had very good reasons for thinking this stuff was too hard for her. And every one of my sympathetic, concerned, and loving reasons was just another way of underestimating what she was capable of doing, of keeping her trapped in the same ghetto of the mind she’d come from. For most people ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ is just a cheap slogan. For me, it’s the very real way I nearly failed my child.

Do not underestimate them. Do not dismiss things on their behalf because they are ‘too hard.’ Let them try. Let them stretch themselves. What you think is ‘too hard’ may not be the standard you think it is.

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