Friday, November 25, 2011

The Reading Parent

Parenting & Society

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends: they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.
Charles W. Eliot

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.
Harry S. Truman
Cat in the Hat: "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go," says Dr. Seuss' chief creation, Cat in the Hat, in I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
: Tower Books

Parenting is a difficult job, a great responsibility. More than anyone, including teachers, parents influence how children develop and view themselves. Although we are finding out more how genetics plays a great role in human development, and can give valuable information on possible statistical outcomes in terms of health, career and personality traits (the old "nature versus nurture" debate), reams of studies have shown, supported by many personal memoirs and biographies, that parents have a great, if not the greatest, influence on how a child will develop.

What about gentics? This is a valid question, since many current studies seem to point or at least raise the issue that genetics and neuroscience show that our brains are pre-programmed at birth. Some will argue that we humans are more like machines than we wish to admit, but the evidence that genetics or neuroscience plays a more central role in explaining humans remains unreliable, if not unconvincing and lacking in drama. We are more free agents than such scientists say. The issue is whether everything that happens in the brain is measurable; I suspect not. And that's a current problem or limit for science. (I have always believed that great literature, for one, offers a more reliable explanation of humans.)

I am a firm believer in science, but I also know the boundary of its limitations. We can become intoxicated with it as much as with religion, looking to it for answers on everything and anything. But some things, such as raising children and parenting, are within our own understanding. Sometimes, there's too much analysis and not enough love and patience. That means parents have a great responsibility, something not all parents take seriously. It's true that children of neglectful, distracted or poor parents can overcome such negative early influences—and many have—but it means starting on a bad foot, since lack of opportunity and socio-economic factors cannot be easily ignored.

The home and the environment that parents create are central to how children learn to view and cope with the world. It's where children spend their time and generate many of their ideas of the world, whether at the kitchen table, in front of the TV, or more so today in front of an electronic device such as a computer, game or other entertainment-inspired distractions. 

There is one simple thing that parents can do to help their children develop, and it doesn't take lots of money or time—reading, and particularly in the early years to instill a love of books, learning and knowledge. The reasons are clear: reading, whether via traditional (books) or modern (electronic devices) means is the chief way to gain information and knowledge. When one reads, one learns, and one becomes excited about learning. Reading is the gateway to knowledge, and that explains why many cultures teach reading at a young age.

Nations and cultures that encourage reading do well in international standardized testing, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.  Every three years, it tests 15-year-olds in the world’s leading industrialized nations (now numbering 65) on their reading comprehension and ability to use what they’ve learned in math and science to solve real problems. In an article in The New York Times ("How About Better Parents?"), Thomas Friedman writes:
The kind of parental involvement matters, as well. “For example,” the PISA study noted, “on average, the score point difference in reading that is associated with parental involvement is largest when parents read a book with their child, when they talk about things they have done during the day, and when they tell stories to their children.” The score point difference is smallest when parental involvement takes the form of simply playing with their children.
It makes sense, and it does not require a doctorate in child psychology or genetics or neuroscience to understand. Nor does it require lots of money on tutors. But it does require commitment to your child's development, a library card, and also doing something that is becoming harder to do in our age of distraction—listening with full attention. Play involves little communication; parental involvement is a learning experience, where the child learns that he or she is important, valued and loved. 

Such ideas cannot be dismissed so easily. Computers and other electronic devices, although important in their own way, cannot replace parental involvement, which is one of the fundamentals of human to human contact—contributing to happy well-adjusted children. Parents want children to succeed and be happy, which is possible but might require changing the way one views children.

Speaking plainly and directly, it might mean remembering what you wanted most from your parents when you were a small child.  Thinking about such things, even briefly, can provide  benefits to your children which can last a lifetime.

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