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Just For Fun

How Visiting My Local Library Makes Me a Better Parent

by Iva-Marie Palmer

Photo credit: jurgita.photography, Moment/Getty Images

As a parent of two young children, I sometimes find myself saying less-than-perfect things:

“If you spill that popcorn everywhere, you’re not eating popcorn for the rest of your life.”

“I’ll look at it later, I have to make dinner.”

“Hold on, Mommy’s on the phone.” (Not really, Mommy is looking at Instagram.)

“I need to look at that later — I have to finish this thing for work.” (I do, too much time on Instagram.)

“Did you do your homework? Where IS your homework?”

I can be an impatient, disorganized, scatterbrained, distracted parent. I hope it’s not a stretch to say we all can be, sometimes.

But at the library, I’m better.

When I’m at the library, watching my two kids with heads bent over books (or in the case of the smaller one, craning over a basket of board books upended on the carpet), I feel certain I’m getting one thing right. And that thing is, plainly, the library.

It starts with the walk over, when my sons and I gather up the books that are due and head out the door. Nate sits in the stroller and Clark holds my hand as we cross the street. We talk about what we’re renewing — we’re always renewing something — and how many books we’re going to get. It inevitably seems like too many, but is ultimately the perfect number.

“It’s really nice that we live so close to our library,” Clark sometimes remarks. At five years old, he manages the kind of sincere and frequent expressions of gratitude for the little things that we grown people have to remind ourselves to recognize. And I do, when he says it, think it’s extremely nice we’re just under ten minutes away.

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We started going to the library when Clark was a baby, before he really got the concept. I knew I wanted books and reading to be ingrained in his life from an early age. Besides reading a lot as a kid, I was fond of accompanying my mom to the library on a regular basis. Day trips to museums and the zoo were special, but something about the routine of the library and the way it blended new things and comfortable familiars made not only my library, but any library I entered thereafter, feel like home.

So, I took Clark there at least every three weeks (when the books were due) starting when he was around six months old, and then continued all through the destructive toddler phases and the preschool years. He came to know our librarians — Bev and Blossom are his favorites. (He’s one of theirs, too, I’m fairly sure.) Desire for his very own library card motivated him to practice writing his name so that he’d qualify for one.

Adding Baby Nathan (age one-and-a-half) to the mix has made the trips a little more cumbersome again — carrying the diaper bag, keeping track of the stroller, monitoring him to make sure he doesn’t rip any books — but we haven’t stopped going. And even if he has the option for a solo trip, Clark always opts to bring his little brother along. “Nate really likes it there,” he tells me.

[RELATED: What I’ve Learned from the Books My Kids Love]

Our branch is on the small side, but the children’s section takes up about a third of the building and there are plenty of tables as well as room to sprawl out on the floor. The windows look out on massive old trees in the park next door, which is a great spot for reading post-checkout.

As soon as we arrive and put our return pile in the book drop, I feel like we’re at our happy place.

Lest you think it’s our happy place because my children suddenly become quiet, angelic library patrons — let me assure you that’s not it. I frequently have to remind an exuberant Clark to whisper, or calm down a cantankerous Nate as he samples and discards the board books.

But it’s happy because even though we might overdo the chicken nuggets, or I flip out when my twosome improvises some noisy, mess-making rambunctiousness when I just really need some peace, at the library I know we’re doing something good for them — without the cajoling that good-for-them things often require. The added bonus for a book lover like me is the flood of joy that comes when I see either of my kids turning the pages of a book they pulled off the shelves themselves.

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Plus, there’s something more. The library is their place, but one that’s separate and special from the places they feel some ownership toward: our house, their grandparents’ homes, the messy backseats of our cars.

It’s nice to know the library’s there, close by, and in its way, somehow looking out for them.

The other day, Clark left behind a soccer ball we’d brought along to kick around at the park. We didn’t notice it was missing, laden as we were with new books. But the next morning, a staffer left me a message saying they thought the ball was his, because they remembered he’d been there. His name’s not on the ball, and we weren’t the only family with small kids in the building the day before. I was fairly wowed they’d known it was ours.

So was Clark. As we headed over to pick it up, he said, “How did they know it was mine?”

“You’re a regular,” I said. “You’re part of the community.”

“What’s a community?” he asked.

I fumbled to explain that a community is a larger circle you belong to, beyond the realms of family and friends, and ended ineloquently with “It’s, just, you know, something that’s nice to be a part of.”

But it is.

If I can give my kids that, along with what I hope will be a lifetime love of reading, then maybe I’m not doing so bad — and I can thank the library for that.