11-year-old Hal doesn’t like reading which worries his father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, for all kinds of reasons. Roger Mills explains.
Conversation overhead two days ago:
Hal’s friend Joe: ‘Hal, what books do you like reading?’
Hal does not reply
Joe: ‘What books do you like reading?’
Hal: ‘I don’t like reading’
Joe: ‘But you know, if you have to read?’
Hal: ‘Oh I don’t know. Horrid Henry I suppose. Because they are easy.’
This little exchange brought me face to face with one of the perennial dilemmas (at least perennial for me) of parenting my son. Hal doesn’t like reading. So much is obvious. But how much should we be obliging him to read? He learns the trumpet. He doesn’t like practice. So we insist on him doing a small amount of practice all week. Somehow though, the same thinking doesn’t apply to reading. This, I think, is because Hal’s trumpet skills will demonstrably improve with practice and clearly have a long way to go, while his ability to read, though not perfect, is 95% there and so not a skill waiting to be developed. But it’s one thing being able to read, another to be getting all the benefits that come from reading. So should we be adopting the trumpet approach with reading?
I feel so divided about this. There are a number of arguments on the side of coercion. Reading, I have always felt, is at the core of learning. It’s almost your entry ticket. People who have the reading habit are set up for acquiring knowledge and all the multitudinous advantages that can come from that. On a more mundane level, readers know things like spelling. Hal’s spelling is lamentable outside of the force feeding preparation that goes on prior to a school spelling test. And then there is the active imagining involved in reading, which seems so much more constructive than the largely passive reception of entertainment that you get when watching telly.
But what about the other side of the argument? At this point my psychotherapist head takes over and I fear that by forcing Hal to read, by manifesting displeasure and being critical about not reading, what I might be doing is setting him up for low self-esteem in the future. I think I have said before that one of the most recurrent features I find in patients who come to see me is that they are harshly self-critical. So many people denounce themselves as ‘rubbish’ and ‘useless’, and yet when you talk with them you find they cling to this way thinking despite having great qualities and skills and capacities.
Look into the life-story of a self-hater and what you will often find is that at some point they have had experiences in which a parent, teacher or carer criticised and belittled them and that attitude has been internalised. Sometimes it is more subtle than that: for example, the child of parents who separate concluding that mum and dad are going their separate ways because ‘I’m not good enough’. So, with this kind of potential damage in mind, do I really want to start forcing Hal to read? Do I really want to risk the possibility of sowing the seeds of self-loathing in him if I am pulling faces and huffing and looking cross when he doesn’t pick up a book every day?
And so I get stuck in the dilemma. I wish Hal would read more. But I don’t want to force it too much. I have been over this so many times with my wife Jo and she will turn round and say: ‘But he’s only 11. And he’s a boy. Of course he doesn’t read.’ And I always feel a wave of relief when she says that, assuming that there must be truth in it. Then there’ll be a lull for a while. And then a few weeks later the next round of perturbation sets in.