Jewish World Review / September 8, 1998 / 17 Elul, 5758

Judy R. Gruen

Turning the pages
of childhood

"MOM, WILL YOU READ TO ME?"

My 9-year-old son asks me this question several nights a week. Even if I'm extremely tired, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say "yes." Like most concerned parents, I have tried to instill a love for the written word in my children. Avi's requests to have me read to him make me feel that I have succeeded.

Before I turn around, he'll be 10, then 11, and then a teenager. He won't ask me to read to him anymore. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote way back in 1607, when the printed word was still a relatively new invention. I want to make this time with my son Avi last.

Admittedly, if Avi had some of the gadgets and other technical wizardry that many perhaps most of his friends have, he might not be so eager to have me read to him. Like many other kids, he and his next younger brother, Noah, might be zapping away at the drivers in on a computer game. Or, he'd be developing an early case of carpal tunnel syndrome from hitting the buttons on a Sega or Nintendo game. But his father and I have steadfastly refused to buy any of these TV appendages and other toys that cost a lot of money and ensure that our children retreat to their own two-dimensional world, staring at a screen, learning nothing of value, oblivious to everyone and everything else.

It's very clear to Avi that we are pretty hard line about this. As Chanukah approached last year, he made a half-hearted attempt to meekly ask if maybe, possibly, we just might consider getting him a Sega game. But my Grinch-like expression was all the answer he needed. He knew this was not a campaign worth waging.

I grew up in a house with three bedrooms and four televisions. Dueling TVs made a cacophony of distracting noise. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from my parents' room, where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. In our house, there was a lot more watching than talking. In my house now, the television is rarely on.

In a way, it's harder us to restrict our children's TV/video watching and to refuse them the technical toys. After all, once they are safely ensconced in front of a screen, they don't really get in the way. Every so often, one will catapult himself to the bathroom, realizing he hasn't gone in who knows how long. And then, mid-day, they may emerge to forage for food. But otherwise, there's less arguing (except for who sits in the recliner), no peripatetic running through the house. In short, no normal kid activity.

So, while I wish I could claim that Avi's reading requests were purely driven from his own awareness that reading is inherently more valuable than computer games, I cannot tell a lie. He asks me to read because he doesn't feel like playing checkers with his younger brothers, his homework is done, it's too dark outside to shoot hoops, and he's bored.

But when he's all grown up, I hope that his memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or sometimes, in my bed, will be among the most meaningful of his childhood. I know that they already are for me. And I'm learning nearly as much as he is. If I hadn't encouraged this practice, I wouldn't have known that Mickey Mantle was the most powerful switch-hitter in baseball, or that Haym Solomon, a Polish-born Jew, was responsible for raising most of the money to finance the American Revolution. A while back, I read portions of a book on William Penn, the Dutch settler for whom the state of Pennsylvania is named. Avi presented a book report on the subject to his class. His teacher was impressed by the fact that Avi was one of the few children in his class to choose a book about American history.

I help Avi choose books when we go to the library. After all, as impassioned as he is about sports players, I want him to expand his ideas and knowledge beyond the three-second rule in basketball or the suicide-squeeze bunt in baseball. Because I read to him, I also have an opportunity to sneak in a few moral teachings in a way that seems a little more palatable than an outright lecture.

For example, we recently read about Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. This opened a discussion about how vastly different sports players and fans are today versus when DiMaggio and Gehrig played. The courtesy, respect, humility and gratitude that the great players of bygone eras usually displayed is in stark contrast to the frequently obnoxious and obscene behavior of today's multi-millionaire, Nike-hawking Brobdingnagians. Though Avi was loath to believe it, I was able to plant the idea that being a sports Hall of Famer doesn't necessarily make you a person of character. And that being a good sport is a whole lot more important than being good at sports.

Where does my pedagogy end and simple "quality time" begin? Ideally, they blend seamlessly. If they do, and if I'm lucky, Avi will continue to ask me to read to him for many chapters yet to come.


JWR contributor Judy R. Gruen has written for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, L.A. Parent, and many other publications. She has three sons, ages 9, 8 and 5, and a daughter, 4.

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©1998, Judy R. Gruen