It used to be so simple.
When I would go to the library or a bookstore with my daughter, I’d pull a book off the shelf and say, “OMG, this is the best book ever. It will change your life. You have to, have to, have to read it!”
And she would.
Sure, she was only six at the time and I was her ride home … and I was the guy holding the money or library card … but, looking back, I’d like to think that, when my daughter would say, “Okay, Daddy,” it was because she respected my literary taste more than the fact that I was a good three feet taller than her.
It was a good system. I told her what to read and she’d read it.
She didn’t read exclusively what I told her to read. I’m no dictator.
She could read whatever age-appropriate book interested her, provided that, if I wanted her to read a particular book, the whole world would stop until she read it. Or until I made the unilateral decision to read it at bedtime for the next five weeks.
That’s a good system, right? What kind of tyrant forces their kid to read The Phantom Tollbooth? A pretty great tyrant, I think.
The system worked. Until, that is, my daughter did something unforgivable.
She got older.
Suddenly, because she could read independently, she started making reading decisions on her own.
It happened quietly. There was no open revolt. She has never explicitly refused to read anything I’ve suggested. She simply doesn’t read it.
I’ll buy her copies of books I love — books that blew my mind as a kid — and she’ll thank me and smile and, a few weeks later, I’ll find the obviously never-opened book shoved beneath her bed.
That drives me nuts. Why isn’t she reading it? My daughter reads all the time. She’s rarely without a book in her hand. So why is she not reading the books that come recommended by someone clearly as smart and reading-savvy as her dad?
I pick out AMAZING books. They’re on awards lists and have medal stickers on the covers and everything. So, why is it that my endorsement is making these empirically excellent books almost invisible to her?
When I bring up this subterfuge to my wife, she suggests that maybe my daughter is trying to protect my ego. But the idea that my kid is afraid of hurting my feelings is both the sweetest and most painful thing I can imagine.
I’m not that fragile, am I?
I merely long for the days when I was the gatekeeper — the wise, respected gatekeeper — and my daughter was the … what do you call someone behind a gate?
Okay, even I’m starting to realize that I’m not exactly coming off well here. It’s just hard. Things are changing. I want to be involved in my daughter’s reading life, but I acknowledge, for that to happen, I have to change a few things about myself.
I can’t make demands of my kid. I can’t assume that I understand what interests her anymore. I can’t expect that my enthusiasm for certain books is going to be as contagious as I think it is.
When it comes to reading, I’m going to have to stop being a book dictator and start being a friend.
I’ve been testing this new approach out lately. After reading Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — which is staggeringly good — I decided that I wanted my daughter to read Pullman’s fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy.
In the past, I would’ve bought her own copies of the books, played the audiobooks in the car, and scheduled marathon reading sessions. This time, I was a little more subtle. I let her see me reading the books on my own. I laughed a lot, I brought them up in conversation, and I casually mentioned, “Hey, if you ever want to borrow them, feel free.”
That’s my new “Casual Dad” reading persona. No biggie. Whatever. Read it or don’t. It’s up to you. Even if it kills me a little on the inside.
It’s an experiment, but it feels like the right way to move forward. I have to trust my daughter to make decisions on her own and have faith that her natural interest in reading will steer her towards books that are worth her time.
But, if I find my copy of The Golden Compass hidden under her bed next week, she’s not allowed to date until she’s 30.
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