The Bad Parent: When Your Kids Don’t Care About Books
By Katrin Schumann
My husband never really got over it when my athletic, nimble oldest child, Peter, quit lacrosse. When my middle child failed to make varsity in either of her beloved sports, Kevin was shaken to the core. And even though he accepted with seeming equanimity that my youngest never once picked up a ball or a stick, I know that secretly he felt an enduring sense of loss.
To be perfectly honest, for years I thought this drama and regret was all a bit silly. Who really cares? Why do sports matter so much?
It’s probably obvious that I was never a gifted athlete. As a child, I always had my nose in a book. Countless dreamy snapshots are stored in my mind: me, curled up on a couch or bed, reading a book. I am who I am today because I devoured all those compelling, challenging stories during endless hours of contemplation.
I fully expected to raise children who were avid readers. As a little boy, Peter read voraciously. Until he suddenly stopped. He told me once that halfway through a sentence, halfway through the 4th Harry Potter book, he just decided to stop reading cold turkey. It wasn’t until I realized that no matter what I did, it was over--he was no longer a “reader”--that I finally understood the depths of despair my husband felt.
I did everything in my power to turn my kids into readers. A few quick examples: for birthday bashes I gave books in lieu of goody bags. As teens, mine were the only kids not allowed video games. And I still read to my youngest daughter at night when she was fourteen years old. (Okay, so I thought that was a little excessive too, but I wasn’t going to stop until she asked me to. BECAUSE I WAS A GOOD MOTHER.)
So I felt deep shame when I understood once and for all that I’d somehow managed to raise a bunch of nonreaders.
Occasionally, another parent will crush me by blithely commenting on how much his or her child adores reading. It’s like a dagger to my heart. For a moment I hate them a little bit because they have no idea how much it hurts to be a lover of books and have kids who are not.
If I learned one thing as a parent, it’s that it’s hopeless to try to foist your passion onto your kids. But this doesn't mean it doesn't sting.
Fast forward about five, ten years.
Peter is now 22 years old. He’s a music producer and a student, and spends 99.99 percent of his time on the computer (for both work and play). He does not have one book in his apartment. Scratch that, he has an unread copy of Best Sports Writing that I tucked into his moving boxes right before he left our house.
Recently, he came home for spring break. One day around 2pm I came home from my office for lunch. No sign of Peter. I ate in silence, wondering whether or not to wake him, thinking all sorts of ungenerous thoughts—and then slowly starting to freak out that maybe he’d had a heart attack and was lying upstairs in bed, gray and lifeless.
Turns out he was READING. That morning, he’d picked up an old copy of The Hobbit from his childhood bookshelf. He had been lying in bed reading for more than three hours.
Over dinner that night, we shared some red wine and I couldn’t get the kid to shut up about the book. He started by telling me that he thinks it was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that turned him into such a good writer. (You're such a good writer? I thought. You care about writing? Cool!) He told me all about the book: the long, explanatory introduction; the complexity of the world; the difference between the various factions; the themes; the writing style and language; the movie adaptations; and on and on. He was so unbelievably animated, so turned on by having rediscovered this story, that he did not stop talking for over an hour.
That night I went to bed deliriously happy.
Since many of my books are about family dynamics, I’m often asked for parenting advice. I always feel like a bit of a fraud because of the secret shame I carry with me that I haven’t managed to raise my kids quite the way I expected. But now I can feel really good about one piece of advice I often dish out: to practice patience. I believe our passions, interests, and values eventually rub off on our kids one way or another, over time.
At least, I've always wanted to believe that. I hoped that was true. I felt that if we all believe it, we can make it happen.
So, to my husband I say: sorry for my lack of compassion. One day the kids will reveal to you the secret, positive impact your love for athletics has had on them. One day. Be patient.
Meanwhile, I keep my fingers crossed that books have indeed shaped my kids, and that as adults, they may well end up turning to them now and again for comfort, entertainment, and enlightnement. One can only hope. One can only try.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann
Categories:Books & Reading