Monday, January 14, 2013

Books: A Spark to Dialogue

When I first became a mother I began to imagine the kinds of situations I would eventually come across as my child became older. I thought about the times when I would have to answer all kinds of tough questions. I had no doubt that I would be the kind of mom who could talk about any sensitive subject whether it was sex, death, drugs, race conflicts, etc. with the same ease as I would talk about the weather. I was ready for my child’s curiosity and investigation of the world. Only later would I realize that things were not so simple, that I would need allies on this quest and I would find them on the shelves of my local library.
Reality sank in when I realized that my oldest child was not one to ask questions. She is observant, but quiet. She does not go on and on about her school day, opening the doors for a conversation about bullying or kindness or hurt feelings. Suddenly I realized that “answering” is not so simple when there are no voiced questions.

How am I to approach hot topics if I don’t really know whether she is ready for them? Will the time ever be right? And when the “right time” approaches, will I recognize it? Are there questions already swimming all over her head that are being left unanswered? My questions to her are most commonly met with one-word sentences. I search for clues of her doubts or fears, but I find that those too are sometimes hard to read.

Recently we were at our local library and I saw a book I thought she would enjoy. The book seemed intriguing enough that I myself was curious. I asked her what she thought of a mother-daughter book club. She liked the idea and we decided we would read it and when we were both done we would have our “meeting”. Each of us was to come up with four questions for the other so we would have a lead into the conversation. For me it was a great chance to strike a lengthier conversation with her, and for her it was an opportunity to have one-on-one time with me (a rare occasion when you have three sisters younger than you).

Our first book was So B. It by Sarah Weeks. A beautiful book in its message, and unknown to me, one that approached a series of difficult as well as morally challenging topics such as mental disability, perseverance, lies and truth, and finally the death of a loved one. We had our book club meeting, and although it still felt like most of the conversation came from me, I felt at ease approaching the hard subjects. The book gave me that “freedom to discuss” because I knew the topics we were talking about did not pop out of thin air. We were discussing them with a purpose and the best part is that I knew she had them in mind.

That first book was enlightening. I began to see our book-club choices as well as the books I read in general as great allies in my quest to approaching tough situations. Now when I come across certain topics in my books I think about relating them to my husband and girls at the dinner table and asking what they think about it. What would THEY do in that situation? Was the character right or wrong in doing so? I can actively search for books that touch on certain topics I would like to talk about, and start the conversation in a casual manner. The books can be my “prompts”, very much like I thought her questions would have been.

In other situations, the deterrent for conversations might not necessarily be a quiet child, but our own fears, embarrassment of, or hang-ups on a certain subject. Using a book plot and characters as the starting point for the conversation can help us distance ourselves just enough from the topic to make it more approachable, less frightening. The book might also show us sides of the topic we as parents had not thought about yet.

You might ask, if that is the case why not just hand the child a book on a specific topic? That is the key though, the books should be used as a vehicle to making the start of a conversation easier, not avoiding it. Nothing can substitute the actual dialogue between you and your children.

Parenting is not easy, and in the quest of doing the best we can to raise knowledgeable, caring and strong beings, an ally or two (or better yet, shelves full of them) can be a very welcomed asset.