I Didn’t Teach My Daughter To Read

First sentences Lorena read

At 4:30pm my son and me picked up Lorena from school. Well, it is a kindergarten actually, she is only five. All three of us went to a cafe for coffee and sandwiches. We usually do this twice a week when Lorena has her ballet classes in the evenings. We are sitting at the cafe and talking about her day, when she looks at my jacket laying on the chair next to her and clearly reads “Zara”. “How do you know it is from Zara?” I asked her. “I read it,” she replied. She continued, it says here, “Zara Basic”.

Being half shocked, half incredulous that she can read, I took the notebook where she was drawing and wrote her a word in Russian Миша. “Can you read it?” I asked her. She read it fine. Then I wrote a word in Spanish Bolso (bag). She read it too. I did not select different languages on purpose. I was completely under shock. The reason I was under shock, is because I never taught her how to read. Nobody did. I had a lot of pressure from my side of the family on that issue. According to my parents I was taught how to read by the age of four. And by the time I was five I was reading one hour per day by myself. Thus, everybody believed that I should dedicate time to show my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter how to read. I resisted it mainly for two reasons, first, because I tried, and both of us found it extremely boring. Lorena and I prefer to read story books, adventure books and classical poetry and literature, rather then A B C books, textbooks or reading-initiation books. The second reason was, because I did not want to push her into reading before she actively asks me for it. I was waiting for the day when she would come to me and say, “Mom, show me how to read.” However, even with those two good reasons I always felt guilty. I felt guilty that I did not teach my daughter how to read. Sometimes I would view my reasons as excuses, and then I would do some attempts to show her that skill. Failed. Failed. Failed.

So, there we were sitting at the cafe today. I decided to try it with the sentences. I still could not believe she actually can read. I wrote the first sentence that came to my mind Yo tengo un perro (I have a dog). And she read it. Good. The next sentence I wrote in English I have a cat. She read it too. With a perfect US pronunciation. Then, I wrote in Russian Я люблю балет (I love ballet). By now I was curious. Well, she read it too. I wrote another sentence in Spanish Yo tengo un hermano (I have a brother). With the same result. In my last attempt to show myself that I am dreaming, I wrote a sentence in French. Among the languages she speaks French is the one she is less fluent in. She only started speaking it last year. And I wrote, Je alle a l’ecole. Well… I guess I should say Voila, she read it too, with the correct French pronunciation.

While Lorena was in her ballet class I could not stop thinking about her reading. How did she learn? How come she can read in four languages when nobody showed her how? I asked her at the cafe if at the kindergarten they were taught how to read or if her grandma showed her how. She replied negatively. She told me they learnt all the letters at her school, but that they do not read words there. They do write simple words though, from what I know.

At the dinner I asked her how she learnt to read. “I thought,” she said. Her reply really caught my interest. “Though about what?” I asked. “Well, I thought that my name Lorena is not just a one letter, it has six letters L, O, R, E, N, and A. Then I looked at the Miro’s name, see, it has four letters M, I, R and O. It is not just one letter. So, each word has different letters, if you break the word down you get separate letters, if you sum up letters you get words. It is simple.” Now she totally got me. I would have never thought of such an explanation, sounds too simplistic. But sometimes child’s mind works differently from ours. I think that all the textbooks were written by the grownups, this is why it is so difficult for kids to learn how to read using those books, apart from the fact that those books at not exciting to read. Mine is just a one person’s opinion, but I think that in order to teach the child to read we need to read them exciting books. Read them often. Every day. Books that have love, passion, fear, emotions, laughs, tears, heros and villains, cavaliers and gentle ladies, princesses and dragoons. If the kids are interested in the magical world that the books can open for them, they will figure out their own ways to learn how to read. It sounds really simple, but I think this is all there is.

At night Lorena read a full ten-page book by herself. It was one long sentence on each page. And she did not finish the book. She left it on the page nine. I did not mind it at all. It was not about finishing the book. It was about the fact that she greatly enjoyed reading the first nine pages. Then she got tired and went to sleep. The book she selected was in Spanish. She told me it was the easiest language to read.

Barcelona, March 12th 2013

Princesses and Cavaliers

Princess and cavalier

Kids were running around on the Bonanova plaza. “I am a princess, I am a princess,” shouted the girls. “Monster, monster,” cried my almost three-year-old son, and with his imaginary sword started to fight an imaginary monster. “I am a princess, and the cavalier is defending me,” said one of the girls. “You can’t be a princess, because I am a princess,” said the other girl. “No, no, I am a princess,” said the third one. “Then I will be a queen, and you will be the two princesses.” After a three minute argument it was decided that one of the girls would be a pink-dressed princess and another one would be a purple-dressed princess. “What are you going to be,” they asked my daughter. “I will be a horse,” and my daughter started to trot like a horse around the plaza not paying any attention to the princesses. “If my brother is a cavalier, then I will be his horse. A cavalier needs a horse. Can I be your horse?” she asked her brother. The little cavalier nodded without stopping his imaginary fight with the monster and told his sister that her name will be Titan. Titan is my son’s favorite pony, sometimes we take him back-riding in a local pony club and he always wants to ride Titan.

There we were, a group of parents watching our kids play on a sunny afternoon after school. My three-year-old imagining himself to be a cavalier and fighting imaginary monsters. My five-year-old trotting around the plaza like a horse and making all the adequate noises. She was totally absorbed by her horse character. And her five-year-old friends were grouped in the middle of the plaza discussing what kind of princesses they would be.

I am wondering if all the girls naturally want to be princesses or is it something that the society heavily pushes on them and their parents support? I honestly do not think that eighty percent of the girls prefer pink and purple to all other colors, and that they mainly want to play princesses. It is the media and the society that tells our daughters that this is what the girls should like and be like. And we as a parents are just lazy. We do not use our own judgment  because it is always easier to go with the flow. Do not get me wrong, there is nothing bad in wanting to be a princess. But is it really pink that makes one?

I think that we greatly misunderstand what being a princess or a cavalier means. It is not about dresses, it is not about owing a spade or a knife, it is not about wearing pink. It is about patience, it is about education, it is about manners, it is about deep feelings, honesty and integrity. Occasionally I saw girls, that appeared to me real princesses. I saw them at the cafe or at  a party. And by the way they hold their cup, by the way they wait their turn to speak, by they way they can ask you a question or give you a compliment, and be honest and fresh in their words, by all that they remained me of real princesses. And by their genuine and open smiles too. And I, like everybody else, felt lucky to be around them. I even stole some tips from those children, and tried to pass them to my own.

There is nothing wrong with wanting our sons to be cavaliers and our daughters to be princesses. Not in words or color of the dress though, but in the essence of the concept.

I often question myself how to teach our children to be patient, to use their own judgment and to be able to think for themselves. To meditate, and to stop and breath through difficult situations, and not to be guided only by their emotions. I wonder how to encourage in them the deep feelings and attachment towards others, towards the people that surround them. We read books that talk about honesty and beauty. I tell them stories and I talk to them about what surrounds us. Yes, I also try to teach them manners, to show them how to be genuinely interested in others. And, no, I do not think that manners are old-fashioned. I ask myself how to encourage them to learn to listen and to ask questions about others. To always look tidy and clean. To never say “I want” or “Buy me this”. And, finally, words do not matter that much. Kids learn from us, from how we behave, from what they are exposed to in their everyday life. And my yardstick as a parent is to watch myself more than I ever did before, to be a good example to them. To never be lazy. And, of course, to offer them all existent colors to dress in, to like and to play with.

And then, if my daughter decides that she prefers pink, I am fine with that.

Barcelona, January 31st 2013