Hal is now 10 and still not the passionate reader his father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, would like him to be…
Over the years of writing this column I have talked rather excitedly from time to time about little ‘breakthroughs’ in Hal’s reading skills. On every occasion there has been a step forward I’ve been hoping that Hal was on the edge of developing a passion for books (and being me, I instantly start conjuring up images of him reading late into the night, unable to put down his literary find). Increasingly though, I am beginning to see that there is a problem with these fantasies. Basically they represent what I would like to happen not what Hal himself feels about reading. Hal is now reasonably good at reading (and if it is a question of reading instructions to a computer game he is suddenly very good) but what he isn’t, is an enthusiastic reader of books.
I quizzed him about this the other night. Why didn’t he like reading I wondered? ‘I don’t have the time,’ was the first explanation offered. ‘After I’ve done school, trumpet practice, dinner, teeth, I’ve only got a little time for me left. If I had to do reading that would mean that I would have to spend the whole day doing things that I haven’t chosen to do.’
In some ways this felt like a tough line to argue with. Why should my ten-year-old be obliged to spend all the time doing things other people want him to do? On the other hand Hal’s existence is nothing like the regimented one he was evoking and I didn’t really buy the argument. I decided to try a different tack and reminded him how much he loved stories. He always pleads for another chapter when we read to him at night. Why didn’t he start to read to himself? Then he could have limitless amounts of bedtime stories since he’d be supplying them himself.
‘No, that doesn’t work’ said Hal. ‘You see…’ pause for thought here ‘…Well you see I find reading is an effort… mmm. Didn’t really want to tell you that.’ This, I am sure is getting closer to the real issue. Hal is OK at reading, yes. But it is still something that he has to work at. He does know the vast majority of the words, but it takes a bit of thinking about. And if it’s a book, it involves a bit too much thinking about for it to be fun. Hal has ever been a path of least resistance creature and he knows very well that he can always get a story read to him by one of his parents, and so he hasn’t needed to get effortlessly good at reading them for himself.
This appears to suggest a possible way forward. We could put an embargo on reading stories to Hal while allowing him to read to himself whenever he wants. This kind of tactic might work, but I can immediately see problems. Firstly there would be howls of protest from Hal which could break down our resolve pretty quickly. Jo and I are adepts at guilt and I can well imagine we would soon see ourselves as cruel, uncaring parents if Hal touched the right nerves. And then there is the question of efficacy. Would an embargo actually get Hal reading? Quite possibly not. There’s a good chance he’d slip into sullen rebellion mode, refuse to read, and we might end up with him being even less keen on the effort involved than he was before.
I remember saying to Jo some time ago that, in Hal, I had a son who was actually rather different from what I’d expected. Arrogantly what I’d expected had been someone who was quite like me. Keen on books, pretty keen on learning. Hal is different. He likes making things. He likes computer games. He likes telly. And he doesn’t like effort. Reading isn’t going to be a passion for him until it is really really easy for him. And I need to get better at recognising that. Hal is the child he is and just because I think reading is a great thing to do, it doesn’t mean he has to.