Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Books and Bedtime

In the frenetic early days of parenting, my biggest battles were against uncontrollable newborn crying fits and dirty and wet diapers. Our little crying, pooping bundle of joy sat still and gazed out at the world. Our job was to keep the baby alive, fed, safe, and clean. Education was an afterthought.

Parenting books advised us to constantly read books and teach our baby. This does not work well in the early months. It’s just too early. We would read some books, but the kiddo was just too young. The stories and pictures didn’t resonate, and he was more interested in clumsily grabbing and ripping at the pages.

That has all changed. We are in the midst of a of a golden age of learning and language development for Mikey. New sentences come bubbling forth, and Mikey is constantly pointing at objects and naming them. After months and months of frustrated crying, grunting, and squealing, Mikey is able to finally use his words to ask for objects. He spews forth a constant stream of sentences structured like “I want ______”

I want out
I want down
I want nana
I want shassy (pacifier
I want up
I want apple
I want apple sauce
I want dada
I want mama
I want cracker
I want baba (bottle)
I want wawa (water)
I want milk
I want a bass (bath
I want to sing (swing)
I want book.

Oh how he wants books! I’ve worried for years that this era of I-phones, internet, high-powered video games, and television shows would create generations of young people who just don’t read. I worried that Michael might become one of those sad souls with his head so buried in a Nintendo DS or so fixated on Fox News that he can’t be bothered to read. I imagined him churning out thousands of instant messages and facebook wall posts while his ability to write, spell, and structure coherent messages withered and died.

I wondered how we would instill in him a love for reading. How could we get him as excited about picking up a new book as he might be about going to the opening of the newest superhero blockbuster movie?

Based on our experiences over the last few months, my worries have been overblown. Mikey naturally gravitates toward books. He points at the pictures and names the animals he can recognize. He stretches his limbs, wipes his chin, and farts right along with Winchell. He roars when he sees a bear or a monster, and he “Toot toots” when he sees a train. When it’s bed time, we read book after book after book after book. I’m sure it’s just a stalling tactic against the inevitable advance of horrible, cruel bedtime…but I don’t care.

This brings up an unexpected problem. Most children’s books truly suck. The pictures are flat, colorless, and not interactive (ie nothing interesting to point at). The stories are completely inane, lacking in humor to keep a parent interested through thousands of readings. The few books that are spot on get so much reading that we poor bleary-eyed parents can recite all of them by memory.

I can tell you everything that Brown Bear, Brown Bear has seen. I can tell you all the different ways that Winchell cuts the cheese. I can recite the life story of Walter the Farting Dog by rote, all the things that the very Hungry Caterpillar had to eat, and all the various ways that Sam I am is pimping his green eggs and ham. I yearn for new material to memorize.

There are some nights, as the pile of books we have read through grows closer to the ceiling, that I get antsy. A little voice inside (possibly the last vestiges of my young, stupid, "free", bachelor former self) rebels against all the reading and pointing at different animals. It says, “This is taking forever. My neck is getting sore. I’ve got other stuff to do tonight. If I have to read about another talking animal learning a valuable life lesson, I am going to scream. How quickly can I get this guy in his bed?”

I hate to admit that this selfish side exists, but even the best parent doesn’t always want to be on the clock parenting. Just as soon as the selfish little voice arrives, it is washed away. I can feel the warm little body in my lap, radiating that indescribable baby smell with hints of fragrant shampoo and recently applied milk and honey lotion. He sits quiet and still, except when I ask him to point at the duck, the cat, the dog, or the moon. He is content, except when a book ends, and he briefly withdraws his pacifier to ask for another book.

I realize that this chore, this drudgery of plowing through books, is actually filling me with joy. I start to get that floating heart feeling of love for my little guy. I think most parents will recognize that feeling of love that it is both so heavy and light that it almost hurts.

We finally both grow tired, and the yawns come more and more frequently. It is finally time to put the little guy in his crib. While it is a relief to finally be nearing the end of the all-important “BED TIME ROUTINE”, my heart aches to be breaking away from this little ritual. Tempus fugit. Life is short, and time flies by. How long until he doesn’t want to sit in my lap reading books? How quickly will that day come that he heads out to college? How many more nights like this do we have left?

I reluctantly shut the door and hope that he settles down without crying for me. It’s after nine-o-clock. There’s a backlog of chores, and I really need to work out. It’s quiet, so he must be asleep. My melancholy dissipates quickly as I pick up my life again. Besides, there’s always tomorrow night. The books and Mikey will be there waiting for me.

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