Reading on his own does not interest seven-year-old Hal as much as his father might have wished. But how do you avoid being a pushy parent while at the same time encouraging high expectations? Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Re-reading what I wrote in the diary for the last edition, my main reaction was to feel a certain amount of embarrassment. In the piece I had been excitedly announcing how Hal had started reading books on his own. It was a new era. Hal’s resistance to reading a thing of the past, etc. etc.
The reality though is that Hal’s solo reading efforts haven’t lasted despite my breathless optimism two months ago. His fundamental attitude to reading is unchanged. He still finds it hard work and a chore and doesn’t turn to books unless they a) have pictures in them that provide a narrative, or b) is required to by one of his parents trying (usually with some form of bribe) to get him to practise.
It’s not that I was making up the last entry. Hal had genuinely done some reading on his own. But I can see now that this was much more a question of wanting to please Jo than the advent of a new enthusiasm. It was my own wishes that led to the distortion. I want Hal to be into reading; I see it as an important sign of progress, and so I have tended to pounce on anything that might be interpreted as a literacy watershed and get over-excited.
I am well aware that I need to be careful here. As a therapist the most common issue that patients come to me with is low self-esteem. ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I’m a failure’. You hear this kind of harsh self valuation over and over again. There can be a number of reasons why people develop this way of thinking about themselves, but one recurrent cause is that, as a child, they have had experiences of one or both of their parents being disappointed in their progress. Time and again patients describe how a parent (often it is the father) berated them for poor school reports or exam results. And when you are young and a parent is telling you you are not doing well enough, ‘I’m rubbish’ easily takes root as your own way of thinking about yourself.
So, though I do experience some level of disappointment that Hal isn’t more into reading, and further along with it, I try to be very careful not to show him that I have thoughts like this. Whilst in the past I have sometimes got impatient with Hal if he stumbles over a word I think he ought to know, or fluffs one he has already had earlier on the page, worrying about the potential impact of criticisms on Hal’s embryonic self-esteem has brought me up short. These days it’s praise for what he gets right and little or no comment when he goes wrong.
But is laissez faire the right way to go as well? Parenting really is a spectacularly difficult job. All the time you are trying to negotiate the right passage between the over-strict and the over-indulgent. Isn’t it also possible that by not being tougher on Hal when he reads I am subtly encouraging laziness and preventing him from developing a resilient self that can cope when the going gets tough? My current thinking is that he is only 7 and resilience can come later. But maybe I am getting this wrong too. Thoughts and suggestions gratefully received.