In the last few years, I've spent a lot of time in the section of our local big box book store that contains books for children and youth. Mostly, this is because this section also contains a table with a track layout and trains from a certain well-known rail-themed franchise. What with my train-obsessed offspring in school and pre-school most weekdays this year, I don't get there as often as I once did, but I was there a few days ago.
During that visit, at some point after mediating between two four year-olds whose trains absolutely had to go in opposite directions around the same track and before improvising a narrative involving a helicopter, a tender engine, and a lost coal car, I heard the thing that puzzles me. I heard a mother vetting an eight or ten year-old child's choice of book based on its reading level.
What puzzles me is not so much the instance but the fact that it is a pattern. In sitting in that section, I have heard exactly that sort of thing countless times. Sometimes the child's book is too easy for the parent's taste, sometimes it is too hard, and sometimes they have not yet made a selection but reading level is the rationale behind Daddy or Mommy pointing them in a particular direction. And this is not just random individuals -- it has state sanction. Not long after L started junior kindergarten this past September he brought home a piece of paper that included, among other things, guidance for parents on doing exactly this sort of supervision. Judging by its design, it was produced at the school board level and probably went home in every elementary school backpack in the greater Sudbury area. I don't remember all of the details, but it included things like the appropriate number of words your child should fail to understand on each page -- not too few, not too many.
I am puzzled because I really don't understand the logic behind this sort of policing.
I suppose I am a little bit indignant and offended as well, on behalf of my school aged self. I remember deviating from my approved reading level in both directions when I was in elementary school. I went through a stretch that I think more or less lasted an entire school year in which I refused to take anything out of the school library other than Dr. Seuss books. I was a pretty good reader, and I remember the librarian (who happened to be my former kindergarten teacher filling in while the regular librarian was on maternity leave) pushing me to explore other books. She presumably knew I was quite capable of handling markers further along some expert-defined path, and was concerned that I had no interest in doing so. She even went so far as having a talk with my parents to get them to exert some pressure -- they did, though I don't remember having the sense that they were really too concerned. In response, as far as I recall, I pulled exactly the same sort of stubborn routine as L does with lots of things when his mind is made up, and flat-out refused. I was enjoying Dr. Seuss, darn it all!
In the other direction, I remember -- oh, it was probably a couple of years after that, but still somewhere in the first half of my time in that K-to-8 school, finding a book that had no reason to be in an elementary school library. In retrospect, it was probably an undergraduate geology textbook that someone had donated. I signed it out and read bits of it. There was lots that was so far over my head I might've drowned, but I got some satisfaction out of reading it and I still managed to learn things. I still remember that it was in that book that I first learned about plate techtonics. Nobody scolded me for this one, but it was certainly in violation of Sudbury school board guidelines about appropriate reading levels for children.
As I got older, I still did both. For example, I remember one summer in my mid-teens that as I worked my way through the cardboard box full of books I brought along on an interminable family driving holiday, I must have reread one particular novel about eight times. I don't remember whether it was explicitly packaged as 'young adult' -- I read very little in that category at any point -- but that was about where it was at in terms of externally determined reading level. Did this do me some sort of harm?
And in the other direction, how on earth could I have come to a point of being able to write about the things I write about, given that I have never taken a course of any sort related to most of it, without at least occasionally reading books that were over my head? Has this done me damage?
Even worse, it seems to me that it is a short jump from policing the reading level of an eight year-old's book choices to a certain subset of snobby, (actual or desiring-to-be) middle-class parents disapproving of an older youth's choice to read science fiction and fantasy rather than "real lit-tra-tchah" and forcing artificial discussions of same at the dinner table. I like myself a good high brow novel when I can steal the time from work-related reading, don't get me wrong, but I can't think of a surer way to have turned me away from reading as a source of joy than trying to bully me into abandoning the genre fiction that was about 85% of what I read until I was at university.
So I just don't get it. Why are school boards giving the message to parents that they should regulate the difficulty of what their kids read, rather than saying, "Let 'em read what they like...it is cultivating real enjoyment that is the most important part, because if they enjoy it, they'll do more of it"? Why are parents so proactive in interfering with their children's choice of reading material in this way?
My first thought was that maybe it is about efficiency. Perhaps there is some sort of evidence that children whose choices are policed in this way do, on average, develop technical skills related to reading more quickly than other children. And perhaps this is the case. But I still don't see how it would work. Surely children who select books that are too difficult will self-regulate easily enough back to a level they are comfortable with, because (at least for most people) reading something you don't really get isn't much fun. And perhaps it is more likely that kids will get stuck in a rut of reading stuff that doesn't challenge them, but even that doesn't seem like a big danger. After all, if they are reading for enjoyment, they will just naturally come across material of varying levels. And if they do read a lot of stuff that isn't challenging, well, so what? At least they're reading and enjoying it, and isn't that what matters most?
So that doesn't explain it. But it also occured to me that maybe this isn't so much about reading level at all. After all, mainstream education is built not around facilitating autonomous joy in learning and exploration but around external regulation of learning via carrots and sticks to most efficiently fill diverse spots in the labour market and to instill the discipline the labour market requires. Sure, there are exceptions, but these are usually accessible only to the most privileged and the 'best' students (and even they have to do with discipline related to employment, but a different, more internalized and colonizing sort of discipline required in some higher status, intellectually oriented spaces in the labour market). So perhaps this advice from the school board is a genuine attempt to be helpful, and it only makes sense that it would take this form because it is the framework that guides everything else that happens in mainstream education. Perhaps it has the less obvious goal of cultivating parental involvement in general in the education of children. This would be explicitly framed as encouraging parents to help children succeed, I would imagine, and certainly you can see why parents would agree with this framing and participate wholeheartedly just because of the powerful role that navigating formal schooling can have in later material success. However, another way to say the same thing is that it mobilizes parents to participate actively in the practices that constitute what we often simplify and reify as 'the state' -- while this may be of benefit to youth materially speaking, it also drafts parents into reproducing oppressive hidden curriculum, blindspots in critical thinking, and assumptions about the world.
And as for what motivates parents to be complicit in this specific state practice...well, I think part of it is buying into the model of pedagogy based on rewards and compulsions and external regulation and validation that is the basis of mainstream schooling. It may also be related to the compulsion, particularly expressed by people who understanding themselves to be or to want to become 'middle class', to perform markers of legitimacy associated with middle-classness and of success understood in conventional ways. Most if not all of the parents I observe doing this at the book store also bear other, visual markers of middle class status (or well-performed desire), so perhaps this is more of the same. We wouldn't want little Johnny to appear like he is failing to keep up with the Joneses, after all, or to actually fail to keep up because we didn't treat reading as something purely technical and instrumental. (shudder)
I'm still not satisfied with all of these guesses, though. I think I might be missing something fairly basic, but I can't think of what that might be.
In any case, to end, I want to emphasize that my incredulity at level of difficulty as a focus for parental involvement in the reading habits of our children doesn't mean I think we should completely disconnect from this area of our children's lives. I think we definitely should encourage them to try new things and even to challenge themselves. I just think that it doesn't make sense to do so by focusing on a narrow, technical understanding of the sorts of challenges that we can find in the written word, or by such boundary violations as disallowing something they have already chosen or regulating their behaviour to limit rather than expand the range from which they are choosing. So however you relate to this part of their lives, do it in a way that puts them at the centre rather than arbitrary standards of questionable value. If your own relationship to books allows, buy 'em stuff they've never looked at before, have lots of different things at home, model a healthy and expansive relationship to books, be ready with different kinds of things to suggest if they ask, and ask them questions to understand their preferences. But avoid dismissive, "Oh, that's too hard for you" or "Oh, that's too easy for you," because if it is, they are perfectly capable of coming to that conclusion on their own.