Hal is now five and a half and doesn’t like being a beginner reader who needs help. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills , explains.
A scene from our house recently: Hal and I are reading one of the Puddle Lane books* . These feature a short four- or five-line text with picture on the left hand page and then, on the right, another picture with one line of fairly easy words for the beginner reader to attempt. The line we are working on is about a cat called Tim and reads ‘Tim ran to the tree’.
I ask Hal what the words say. ‘The cat…’ he ventures hesitantly. ‘No,’ I say, ‘look at the actual words. What does this one say?’ I point to ‘ran’. ‘Tree’ he guesses wildly. ‘Come on Hal. Let’s look at the letters. I point to the ‘r’ and cover up the other two. ‘Ter’ Hal tries, and then ‘Huh’ when he sees it isn’t right. Eventually I try and help him out. ‘It’s a ‘Ruh’. And then he loses it. ‘Don’t help me,’ he shouts, suddenly furious. And the next moment he refuses to try any more letters. Reading is over for the day.
Moments like this are fairly common at the moment and they reinforce for me the simple truth that you need to be able to cope with a certain amount of humility in order to be able to learn. But if you find the power imbalance between yourself and the people who are teaching you too humiliating, your progress is likely to be limited. This is something that people of any age can suffer from. But it is a completely inevitable situation for a child.
And humiliation is, I am pretty sure, what Hal feels when we try to help him to read. I’ve mentioned before Hal’s apparent hope that an ability to read would just magically arrive one day. I’m convinced that an important reason he clings to this hope is that it protects him from the belittling awareness of himself as a beginner who lacks the skills the grown-ups have.
We are seeing this kind of thing in other areas too. Hal never really went through the fabled terrible twos or threes. But he is beginning to throw the odd mini-tantrum now when he is told he can’t do or have something. ‘Not fair,’ he yells if we insist the TV is going off when he doesn’t want it to, and you can see him smarting at the injustice of autocratic adults dictating his life to him, wielding a power he cannot oppose. All of us have had to cope with this infantile state of impotence of course. And how we handle it probably has a great deal to do with how we handle power imbalances (having a boss for example) when we grow up. There are bitter lessons to learn here for people of Hal’s age. And they have a lot to do with how easy it will be to learn something like reading.
* published by Ladybird