It’s Not All Hereditary

I wrote this for my first paper in my College Writing class. The assignment was to write about a time when reading, writing or language in general has had an effect on us. Naturally, I wrote about Jaden.    

     When you become a new parent, everyone who’s already a parent thinks it’s a good idea to share with you all the horror stories of infancy and toddler hood. “Good luck sleeping!” “If you think this is bad, just wait until the Terrible Twos!” “Terrible Twos? More the like the Terrible Threes; am I right?” Then there’s the boasting. “Timmy learned to write his name when he was 2.” “Well, Janie was speaking fluent Spanish at 18 months.” Personally, I was happy that my daughter hit all of the necessary goals at the right time. Then school started and, along with it, worries over her reading development. She got frustrated with herself. I got frustrated with myself for being frustrated with her frustration. I knew reading would take time but I thought my reading skills would be passed along genetically. Isn’t that how genetics works? As it turns out, we both had some learning to do.

     I don’t remember learning how to read. Perhaps it just came naturally to me so there weren’t any “I can’t do it!” moments followed by “I can do it!” moments to remember. To me, reading was like breathing; I did it without thinking about it. Whatever I could get my hands on, fiction, non-fiction, magazines, cereal boxes, I read. Reading during the school year was a given since I had an endless supply of books at the school library. The summers were split between running around outside and lying on my bed with a tattered paperback. There was one memorable afternoon when my brother and I braved a summer rain storm to ride our bikes to and from the library with our backpacks full of Babysitters Club and Goosebumps. When I was nine years old, I received my favorite Christmas present as a child: the complete Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I still have them in the original display box they came in.

     Most of my childhood favorites were saved for my future children to enjoy. In my early twenties, before I even started thinking about starting a family, I bought myriad coffee table books and fairy tale collections. I wanted any kids that I ended up raising to have a wide variety of items to choose from, like I did. Once my children were born, my husband and I read to them every night. We bought learning toys and DVDs and worked with them on their ABCs and writing their name. Each of them has a book case in their room filled with picture books and they both love looking at them. Between these tools and my genes, surely reading would be a breeze. I was already imagining Family Reading Time with each of us curling up in the cozy living room with a favorite tome.

     Imagine my concern, then, when my daughter didn’t simply fall in love with reading like I had. She loved being read to and making up stories for the pictures but the second I asked her to read to me, she shut down. I backed off, not wanting to turn reading into a chore, but I couldn’t completely abandon the efforts. When I read to her, I would ask her to pick out three words on a page; two could be words she knew but one had to be a new word. The success rate of this tactic was roughly fifty percent. This past fall, she started first grade and brought home short practice books to read. Each night at bedtime I turned on her radio, set to the classical station, and we’d sit on her bed with one of these books. When she would get stuck on a word, I’d work with her to sound it out which would’ve worked great except she threw in letters that weren’t there.

     “What letters do you see?” I would ask, pointing at the word “went”.


     “No, honey, I know that you know your alphabet. What letter is that?”

     “I can’t do this!”

     “I’m not asking you to read the word! I’m just asking you to tell me the letters that you see!”

     She’d end up falling back and pouting and I would sigh and pat her on the back telling her not to worry; she’d get it someday. Inside, I was worrying enough for the two of us and mad at myself for losing my temper yet again.

     Eventually, she learned some new tricks from her teacher and brought them home to show us. We switched from relying solely on “sounding it out” to focusing on context and looking at the pictures to figure out the actual words of the story. It didn’t happen magically as if a switch was turned on but she started showing less and less frustration. At the end of one book I saw there was a word count and I told her, “Sweetie, did you know that you just read 134 words?” Her jaw dropped and then melted into an embarrassed/proud smile. I hugged her tight, laughing, “See? You can do it!” Still smiling, she ran off to tell her daddy.

     In the last two weeks she’s made such dramatic strides that she’s reading not only the little practice books from school but also full 30-40 page books. She explains the plot after reading it and the solution to the characters’ problems. I sit next to her watching her patiently sound out words that, not too long ago, would have discouraged her into quitting. I can’t help but smile and struggle to hold back the tears of pride. Wrapping my arms around her and my hand stroking her hair, I think about the person she is, not the one I had in my head when she was born, and whisper, “I am so proud of you.”

     As a parent, my worrying will never stop. When it comes to my daughter’s education, I know we will both face new obstacles and new frustrations. We have both won our first major victory with reading. She has learned to not give up on herself and I’ve learned to remember that while she may look and act a lot like me, she is not me. She will learn things at her own pace and have her own passions. I will continue to support her learning and keep the book shelves stocked.


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