A long time ago someone told me that reading to your children would make them smarter and at the time I was far too young and naive to realize the danger in such a thing as a “smart child”. However, ten years later and I’m still reading to them every night, and honestly, I sometimes question just how smart it is actually making them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think my children are very smart. I’m proud of the way they see and question the world around them, and I often see them applying things that we read about in books. Like when they leave the front door open and fill our living room with snow like in Mr.Popper’s Penguins. Or when they empty a jar full of spiders on their bedroom floor so they can reenact their favorite parts of The Hobbit. But there are times when I wonder just how much they are really paying attention to me as I read.
For instance, we ran across a table of Harry Potter figures at the store, just after Christmas, and my daughters were adamant that they looked /nothing/ like the characters in the book. Which is fair, because their imaginations probably are very different and I have not allowed them to watch any of the movies yet. I’m happy they have their own image of these characters. But then they picked up one of the larger figures and asked who it was.
“That’s Hagrid,” I told them.
“No.” Clara shook her head. “This can’t be Hagrid, because Hagrid does not have a beard. He’s 20 feet tall and bald.”
“What?” I was taken aback. “That’s ridiculous. Were you not listening at all when I read you the book? Hagrid’s beard is a fundamental part of his character?!”
“Well, that might be,” she retorted, flipping her hand dismissively. “But he doesn’t have a beard.”
“Well, that might be,” I said, with a mocking hand gesture back at her, “But what you just said was complete nonsense.”
I gave up the argument though, and I’m glad I did because less than a minute later and the two sisters were excitedly in agreement that Ron Weasley does not have “that color hair”.
I sighed. If this is the level of retention that I was receiving for Harry Potter books, what level of retention was I getting from them when I told them about things that actually mattered in life? Was every word I said to them being twisted up in this chaotic mash of half-asleep brain cells that we have stuffed inside their heads along with apple sauce and oatmeal?
I had no idea that Hagrid’s missing beard and Ron’s hair color were not the worst examples I would encounter. A few weeks later I was deep in a reading of Sterling North’s Rascal about a young boy and his pet raccoon and I came to a passage where the boy and the raccoon were hanging out in the top of a tree on a cool summer day. The boy told about how comical it was for the raccoon to lay up there on the branch, draped over it like a rug, with all four of his legs dangling beneath him as he slept. And as soon as I read this, Lydia sat bolt upright in her bed.
I placed a bookmark on the page and took a deep breath. “Okay, what is it, Lydia?”
“Rascal. You said four legs?”
“Yes, dear. All four of his legs. Hanging off the branch…”
“I don’t understand.”
“How does he have four legs? Does he have four legs AND his two arms?”
I scratched my head and closed my eyes. “No. No that’s… He just has four legs. He’s a raccoon.” I pointed at the cover of the book. “See? One. Two. Three. And right there is four. Four legs. He’s had four legs this whole time because this is a book set in a place called ‘Reality’. He’s a raccoon. They have four legs.”
She rolled her eyes at my sarcasm. “But you said he has two hands!”
“I… I don’t think I did.”
“Yes! You said he would take things and hold them in his tiny hands and wash them in the river.”
“Yeah. Okay. Raccoons kind of have hands.”
“Well?! Hands have arms. Not legs. Legs have feet!” She held both up so I could see, just in case I forgot what hands and feet looked like on a human.
Clara was nodding vigorously along with her sister, craning her neck to look up at the top bunk.
“No. You can have hands on the ends of legs.”
“No,” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Not you. Unless you were a raccoon maybe. But it’s possible for … something… to have hands on the ends of its legs.”
“So, does Rascal have four hands and no feet?”
“Um.. no?” I was beginning to feel like maybe I had no idea what a raccoon even was anymore.
“How do you know? Maybe he actually has four arms and no hands! Maybe he has two legs with hands and two arms with feet. Or he has three arms, one leg, and a foot at the end of all of them!”
Okay. Now we had gone completely off course. I had to flick the lights on an off several times to get her attention as she was dissolving into a puddle of existential doubt, cheered on the entire time by her older sister who was literally clapping her hands and rocking back and forth in approval as Lydia dissected the very concept of arms and legs and tossed the whole mess right out the window.
“Can we stop now?” I asked. “Can I just, please, finish this chapter and we can move on with our lives?”
They seemed reluctant.
“Look,” I said finally after another heavy sigh, “I have never had a pet raccoon. Have you had a pet raccoon? I didn’t think so. Let’s trust this dude,” I looked at the cover of the book again, “Sterling North. Let’s let Sterling be the expert on raccoon anatomy. If he says Raccoons have four legs, let’s just trust him. Okay? Can we do that?”
They bobbed their heads back and forth noncommittally.
“Okay… so a raccoon has four legs. Yes?”
“Alright.” Lydia laid back down. “A raccoon has four legs.”
“Good.” I opened the book back up and tried to find the place where I had left off.
“…not counting their arms,” said a voice from the top bunk.