I love books. I always have. I didn’t “do sports” in school. I was the prototypical nerd, nose in book. My first job, at age fifteen, was in a bookstore. I remember being shocked that they were going to pay me to be there. In college, one of my friends insisted on calling me “Book Boy.” I didn’t mind. My college degree was in graphic design, but my deep love of books kept me working in bookstores, which led to my current job in publishing.
When my wife and I decided to start a family, I knew I wanted us to raise readers, and so far we have. When our older son, Miles, was born five years ago, we began reading to him every night, even as an infant. It was a nightly bedtime ritual that ended each day with quality bonding time. We read him new books and introduced him to favorites from our youth, books like Goodnight Moon and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Even now, he loves being read to, will often sit quietly looking through his books, and is starting to recognize words on his own. His baby brother Finn’s eyes light up when you hand him a book, even if his first instinct is to chew on the corners. Despite our massive collection of books at home, we still regularly visit our local bookstore and library.
I tell you all of this so you can imagine my horror when I found myself withholding books from Miles. He is like many five-year-old boys – energetic is a polite way to put it. There are common refrains around our house in the evenings. “Miles, don’t squeeze your brother so hard. Miles, sit down at the dinner table and eat. Miles, don’t jump off the back of the couch.”
Our standard methods of punishment are making him sit on the naughty step or taking away something he loves, like a toy or a TV show. But when the misbehaving occurs just before bedtime, the most effective punishment is to take away one of his four bedtime stories. Sometimes the bad behavior continues until there are no books left. After the anger dies down, I’m left with guilt and sadness. Did I really just tell my child that I won’t read to him? What kind of a parent am I?
Well, in my minimal defense, I’m a parent who has found something that works. Inevitably, the loss of a book is met with whines and cries of “No!” It’s clear he loves books and enjoys our reading time as much as I do. The logical side of my brain tells me that I’m not taking away his love of books, that that’s something my wife and I have instilled in him, and maybe occasionally withholding books – when necessary – will make him come to value them even more. I remind myself that he still reads regularly throughout they day, in the morning, at school, before dinner, and that a day without bedtime stories is not a day without reading.
You’re probably thinking, isn’t there something else we could try? Believe me when I say, we’ve probably tried it. Taking away something that will happen the next day – his morning TV show, a planned outing – doesn’t have enough immediacy. It’s too abstract. Quarantining a toy for a few days doesn’t work unless it’s a toy he’s currently playing with. And making him go sit on “the naughty step” only punishes us because, at that time of night, we’re just trying to get the bedtime ritual underway.
It might be rationalization, but in the grand scheme of things, withholding a book or two isn’t so bad, is it? There are parents who sometimes send their kids to bed without supper. Food is more necessary than books, right? (Well, maybe:)
So, yes, I’m still pretty torn about it all, but I think I’ve found a way to make up for it a little bit. The other night, Miles was in the shower. He still needs a fair amount of help getting clean, so my wife and I were very surprised to hear him say, “I shampooed myself!” Sure enough, he was standing there with a full head of suds. I said, “Great job, Miles! I’m so proud of you.” Then, inspiration struck. I continued, “You know what? You get an extra book tonight.” Why had we always turned to toys or sweets for rewards? What’s more rewarding than books?
So now, sometimes bedtime reading is four books, sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s five. No matter the number, I know he loves his books. As he learns to read on his own this year, every second of reading time will be vital, so I truly hope there will be more rewards than punishments.
All that being said, I bet, deep down, I’ll still feel guilty when I have to take a book away.