Common Sense Parenting; Lessons from Dr. Wendy Mogel

I didn’t write the SCMP headline, but I did write the article and dedicate it to Lucy, Erica, Kathy & Cindy!  In fact, this blog is named after that barely paved road we were allowed to cross.  

scmp.com/…/benign-neglect-giving-kids-scope-learn-make-mistakes-and-grow

“Benign neglect” is the phrase that would most aptly describe my parents’ approach to parenting in the 1970s. What today might be called “free range parenting” or actual neglect, back then was just childhood.

Our home in rural Pennsylvania bordered a cornfield at the top of the hill and a nature preserve with a creek running through it just beyond. My sister and I had two neighbor girls through the woods on one side and another across a barely paved street that we were free to cross on our own from a very early age. In fact, the five of us were free to do just about anything we liked. We could wander the woods, play in the creek, build forts in the goat shed, collect coal from the yard, watch as much television as we liked and eat anything we could scrounge for ourselves from the kitchen.

I never wore shoes and my feet were as tough as leather from walking barefoot down our gravely driveway all summer. I was dirty, disheveled and, being the oldest, blamed by the neighbor parents for corrupting the language of their children. We spent days writing elaborate plays, producing gymnastics shows, attempting to make a whirlpool in the small swimming pool, flooding the driveway to create an ice skating pond or sawing the cornstalks sticking up from the impromptu rink created by poor drainage in the field. We crossed barbed wire fences, tore our clothing, swung from vines, rolled in clover and picked wine berries from thorny bushes to eat by the bucket load with full fat milk and real sugar.

Today this kind of childhood would be almost impossible to reproduce, and parents who tried might suffer judgment from their peers for neglect or endangerment. For us, it was paradise.

I thought this kind of parenting a relic of a simpler time until I had the pleasure of attending a talk by a leading parenting expert in the U.S. who seems to be encouraging parents to think back to their own childhoods and recapture for their children some of the danger, freedom, resilience and thrill that has been largely lost in the overscheduled, anxiety-ridden, structured world of parenting today.

New York Times bestselling author and practicing psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel has turned her focus to counseling parents instead of young children these days. Her two best-selling books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of A B Minus offer encouraging words of wisdom for parents to give children space to make mistakes and to learn from them.

Dr. Mogel encourages parents to relax and stop “quaking in our boots” parenting. In this age of artisanal parenting, where we pay continuous partial attention to our children, we need to put our phones down and engage when we are with our children, but also give them time when we are not there hovering over them. Humorously, she suggested parents start by reading the online satirical website called The Onion because, as she said, “you need mirth in your home.”

Dr. Mogel implores parents to let children do thrilling things, as this is how they avoid being fearful. She referenced an article about the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. For parents who can’t bear the thought of this, who are worried that something might happen, she replies, “but you are in my office, so you can’t live with your kid now either.” Freedom is how they learn to keep themselves safe.

Dr. Mogel cautioned parents to stop interviewing their children for pain. Instead of trying to uncover all that went wrong in their day, find out what went right. She said that, “Good, healthy, respectful parenting will feel like neglect.”

According to Mogel, girls need to go through phases that will scare parents, and boys need the time to be good tired, not just weary. All kids need to move, not ride around in the car doing errands or going to lessons. Dr. Mogel reminded us that children must have chores for their own growth and to be of assistance to the family.

After all, Dr. Mogel reminds us, the “The whole point of parenting is to make it look appealing to your children so they’ll have children and you can be a grandparent. If you make it look like a burdensome, stressful drag, they won’t want to be parents, and then you won’t have any grandchildren.” Dr. Mogel’s highly anticipated next book is scheduled for release in 2017.

Listening to parenting experts like Dr. Mogel, Dr. Madeline Levine, Dr. Michael Thompson and so many others, their messages are consistent and surprisingly similar. Each encourages parents to lighten up on our kids and to give them a little more space to navigate the world on their own. We have made parenting so complicated and all consuming, we have to remember to stop worrying and start enjoying our kids during this brief time when we get to be the primary decision makers in their lives.

Who Benefits from Homework?

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1822238/schools-worldwide-consider-homework-ban-partly-ease-burden-pupils

Homework is so inextricably linked to school that it’s hard to think of one without the other. But increasingly educators and child development specialists are examining the practice of assigning homework to children and considering whether it is truly beneficial or potentially harmful. A growing trend to abandon homework altogether for children is building momentum around the world.

The Guardian reported this week that one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, 162-year-old Cheltenham Ladies College, is considering banning homework to “tackle an epidemic of teenage depression and anxiety.” Public School 116 in New York City recently banned homework for students up to grade five having found no link between assigning elementary school homework and success in school. The Kino School in Arizona has a no homework policy for all grades even through high school, and contends that learning remains joyful for their students. Even some of New York City’s most prestigious private schools like Dalton and Spence have reviewed their policies to lessen the nightly burden on their students.

Myriad books on the subject are cropping up on bestseller lists. The most prominent of which include, The Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, of Brooklyn, NY, The End of Homework by American Educators Etta Kralovec and John Buell, and prolific author Alfie Kohn’s, The Homework Myth described in the Atlantic Monthly, as “a stinging jeremiad against the assignment of homework which the author, a prominent educator, convincingly argues is a wasteful, unimaginative, and pedagogically bankrupt practice that initiates kids into a soul-sucking rat race long before their time.”

The primary arguments against homework are that it reinforces a sedentary lifestyle, leads to frustration, exhaustion and stress for children, gives them little time to do other constructive things, can lessen children’s genuine interest in learning, burdens teachers to design and grade homework and parents who have to monitor and often spend time doing homework instead of more engaging activities with their children and that it is pointless, since there is no evidence that it leads to improved performance later in school.

Parents like homework because they believe that it reinforcing learning at home, reveals what children are learning in school, establishes good routines and habits, and it helps shape the afternoon hours after school for the families.

While these points seem reasonable, most of the benefits are accrued by the parent rather than the student, and the actual effect is not what parents think. Good communication between teachers and parents can show parents what children are learning without requiring the child to do busywork at home. In fact, busy work can overwhelm struggling students and bore high achievers, dampening their interest in learning. Parents reason that homework should help, but no study shows that it actually does.

In our busy and frenetic society, the primary benefit of homework may be simply that it keeps children engaged in seemly constructive activities after school and reduces our own anxiety that they might not be learning enough in school. In certain subjects, like Chinese, an argument could be made that practice and wrote memorization is the only way to do it, but the optimal quantity and quality of assignments beyond the classroom even in these subjects is unclear.

Perhaps the homework debate is not so much a yes or no, but what kind? Annie Murphy Paul described in a 2001 NY Times article the concepts of spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and interleaving as three research-based strategies that demonstrate positive results when applied to homework. More research into these specific techniques and others like them could influence schools to more consciously design interesting and engaging extension activities that truly benefit students’ learning.

Reading for pleasure is the one area of “home work” that educators and researchers agree is essential for children on a daily basis. This practice has the biggest impact on future success in school. Children should be encouraged to select their own books and should not fill out reading logs or be rewarded for reading except, perhaps, with more books. Developing an intrinsic love for reading is the most essential determinant of future happiness and success in school.

In lieu of homework, creative projects can be helpful in reinforcing concepts, extending learning and engaging children and parents in the learning process. Working collaboratively, teachers, students and parents can identify after school activities that are active, creative and fun for kids, and a much better use of everyone’s time.

Heading into summer holidays, many parents look forward to more unstructured time with their children, time to stay up late and not have to rush home to do homework. What if parents could look forward to that time throughout the school year as well, knowing that in this case, less really is more.

Modern Family Easter

I hate Easter.  Wait.  Before you judge, it’s not the message I hate, but my total epic parenting fail each year as I attempt to create a meaningful experience for my non-church-going family and instead end up disappointed with myself and angry at all of them.   This year was the most ridiculous yet.   When my teenage son accused me of channeling my inner-Claire and labeled it the “Modern Family Easter” I had to admit he was right.

Easter was my favorite holiday when I was a kid.   The few years dad and I were on our own were lean.  A private school music teacher didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were happy and I didn’t really know how poor we were.  My clothes and our furniture came mostly from hand-me-downs and the Encore Shoppe on Route 1 in Kennett Square.  I loved combing the thrift store to find treasures for less than a dollar, and putting together funky outfits. It was the ’70’s, so thrift store chic wasn’t so far off the mark.

But Easter was different.  Every Easter I got to pick out a brand new outfit.  Dad would take me to Sears or J.C. Penny’s and I could pick out a dress and shoes.  The night before Easter felt like Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t sleep in anticipation.  Easter morning I awoke to a lovely Easter basket (much bigger once my dad married my wonderful stepmother).  My stepmother headed to Church, but dad and I went to our Quaker Meeting.  After the close of meeting, the children handed out pansy plants to each member to take home and plant in the garden, heralding the approach of spring.  Fourth grade members of the First Day School  received their very own monogrammed bible, and 7th graders got a copy of Faith & Practice.  Dad would often play a few songs on the piano then the whole meeting would retire out to the yard to watch the Easter egg hunt and sip lemonade.  I loved hunting for eggs among the gravestones and later cut my teeth in leadership roles by organizing the hunt for the younger kids myself.  After meeting (and a few years later) we went to Easter lunch at Grandma Skip’s place.  She would make a feast and use the fancy china.  Our Easter had the perfect combination of religious piety, community, childhood indulgence, family, beautiful food and seasonal reverence.  It was perfect.

Fast forward a few decades and a few countries and our family hasn’t been able to settle into a Sunday church routine despite more efforts than I can count.  In lieu of church we usually resort to hiking, the farmer’s market, brunch, or a solitary run for me while the others sleep in.  I have resigned myself to the state, but on Easter and Christmas, I really suffer the lack of tradition and religious community.

Last week I saw a sign at the school that advertised a beachside sunrise Easter service at 6:30 am.  I reasoned that we could get up and out, join a casual outdoor service and check the box on worship before we were really awake – thereby appeasing my restless yearnings – then get on with the day.  I prepped everyone that this was the plan the night before and they grumbled, but didn’t refuse.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 Easter morning, all but the youngest protested.  My husband, already begrudgingly up and showered, didn’t appreciate my last minute attempted acquiescence and I think I might have said something about not being his mother (apologies to his mother!) when he asked if he had a choice about going.  The teenager was the hardest to rouse, but I was on a mission.  Un-showered and with headphones firmly ensconced in both ears, he shuffled to the car with a “what the hell” thrown in for good measure.

I parked at the wrong end of the beach, so we took off our shoes and skirted the surf to the other side.  Arriving after the service had begun we found about two dozen people happily singing along to the guitar as the children ran around.  All the park benches were accounted for, so we sat on the ground.  The nice minister was enthusiastic and happy, declaring over and over, with a sportsman-like whoop, that “Jesus has risen!  Yea!”  “Woo-hoo!”  Communion emerged from a screw cap roadie and a ziploc baggie and was awkwardly decanted into more fitting vessels.  My youngest, accustomed to receiving communion in other churches, was bummed when he was passed over in lieu of a blessing and asked loudly if he and I could split the host I was offered.  I don’t think the teen took the ipod out of his ear the whole time as he sat propped against the beachside trash can.  The minister was afraid to approach him for a blessing and so air blessed him from three feet away.

As the group sang an impossibly falsetto contemporary Christian song we didn’t know, an elderly Speedo-clad Chinese man wandered through the group, stretching his arms and clapping to the tune.  Surprisingly he didn’t really look out of place in that setting, but picturing my husband showing up to that service in a similar outfit made me chuckle.  Just as the service ended and the minister offered his carton of OJ and paper cups to stick around and get to know everyone, a completely naked female swimmer emerged from the sea and strode up the beach, entirely unburdened by her public nakedness.  Watching the churchgoing men try to avert their eyes over OJ was hilarious.

We headed home.  I took the younger two for brunch and a swim while my husband and teenager went back to bed.  Later, my son’s lingering cold wasn’t improving, so we headed to the hospital for a check and everyone else puttered for the rest of the afternoon.

The day would have been a total write-off were it not for a dear friend who knows how to celebrate holidays and every day with style, kindness and fun.  She invited us for Easter dinner and it was as perfect as could be.  An egg hunt for the kids, beautiful flowers, hand-blown eggs painted with chalkboard paint for our place cards at the table, beautiful food, drinks, friends and individual bunny cakes for dessert.  We told the story of our morning, and somehow telling it made me laugh and let it go.  Maybe some year I’ll be able to make my kids feel as excited about Easter as I was when I was a child. Until then, I will feel grateful for the blessings of friends who can do what I cannot and try not to take it all too seriously.

Reflecting later, I realized that my son’s Modern Family moniker for our day really was astute, as even though Claire and Phil and their family can be ridiculous, neurotic, silly and selfish, the one message that rings true in each episode is that family comes first, no matter what happens.

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Who Holds the Power? The Writer.

Today’s SCMP Article on adolescent literacy, the link, or text below…

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1745385/dont-sell-short-power-pen

In advocating literacy, we have mostly discussed the importance of reading aloud with children. But there’s a second part we haven’t addressed as deeply: writing.

Writing is powerful. Consider this: history happens, but the one who writes it down becomes the arbiter of its future understanding. The writer shapes public opinion, provides context, persuades and inspires. We would know virtually nothing of the past were it not for writers. Time changes everything, but in books, it will always look as the writer wishes it to appear.

Writing has to be nurtured. Like reading, writing instruction in Hong Kong sometimes unintentionally prioritizes performance over pleasure and the need to develop a deeper insight into the world. The process of learning to write is so much greater than cultivating beautiful handwriting and perfect spelling. In fact, those skills are somewhat beside the point.

The writing process can be particularly therapeutic for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Writing allows one to express frustration, to explore connections and relationships and to develop consciousness. Writing only works when it is truthful and honest, and oftentimes the process itself helps the writer determine what she thinks about a topic.

Deborah Wiles, award-winning author of children’s books, spent nearly two weeks in Hong Kong working with students and teachers at both HKIS and CIS this month. She demonstrated how fiction can be as powerful a medium to convey ideas, inform and to convince, as is nonfiction. “Think of the power you have if you hold the pen,” she says. People become what you can imagine. For example, in her award winning, Love, Ruby Lavender, three crotchety aunties who had always reminded Wiles of chickens feature prominently as such in the book. Revenge is sweet when her real life nemesis younger brother appears as an unpleasant little girl in one of her books.

Wiles’ books are deeply personal, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, as the creative and fanciful stories are every bit as imaginative as pure fiction. Set in her childhood homes and drawn from her stock of memories, they are her own stories, but not standard memoirs. Her history takes the form of young adult fiction, picture books and what she calls a documentary novel, a trilogy about the 1960s that defies categorization.

“I write so I can say I was here. So I can find like-minded souls to share the road with. You must tell the whole story of your whole life with your whole heart because that is how we create life.“

Writing and life is about paying attention, making connections and asking questions. She teaches aspiring writers to “know, feel, and imagine.” Writing can also help with grief. Writing helped her through the grieving process during a particularly difficult year of her life. Of the process of writing and recording her experience, she said, “I learned to carry my grief. You do not ever get rid of it, but you learn to carry it.”

The good news is that in one form or another, we are all writers. We write every day. Emails, business communications, term papers, thank you notes and the occasional one-off essay, we write to communicate, to persuade, to express gratitude and to inform.

In a New Yorker column this week, acclaimed author Andrew Solomon wrote, “What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too.”

Creative writing is as important a process and skill to cultivate in adolescence as are all the traditional communications and persuasive tools. Parents, your child’s fanciful stories are a path to one of life’s most essential skills and must be nurtured and celebrated as such.

Let Them Be Bored

Here’s my February SCMP article promoting our upcoming visit by Dr. Madeline Levine to Hong Kong (a link to the SCMP, or the text below):  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1721677/imagination-just-important-children-books

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“Use your imagination,” my mother exasperatedly replied to my whiny claims of boredom one day when I was little. “I don’t have any!” I dramatically exclaimed. But the truth is, my childhood was replete with unstructured time and full of imaginative play. I fear, however, that for this generation of students who are intensely scheduled, pressured and expected to excel in all areas of life except free time, that answer might just be true.

We all want what’s best for our children, but determining what that is and how to get there is not easy. In our best effort to shepherd them through this competitive, harsh world, we fight their every battle, smooth every bump, give them every advantage and then we wonder why they can’t do anything for themselves. Collectively, as helicopter parents of the fragile teacup generation, we view the nurturing years as a complex battle strategy of defense and attack, and we’re arming ourselves to the teeth.  It’s exhausting and ultimately not helpful for our kids.

A practicing psychologist and bestselling author, Dr. Madeline Levine has identified alarming rates of depression among teenagers who are adored by their parents and successful by any measure, but who are feeling empty and lost, with no sense of self, or purpose in life. Dr. Levine has dedicated her recent years of practice to identifying this alarming trend of performance-based, pressure-cooker culture among teens and offering alternative parenting strategies to help mitigate it.

Dr. Levine describes the problem in this way: “The kids I have seen have been given all kinds of material advantages, yet feel that they have nothing genuine to anchor their lives to. They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm, and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure. As their problems become more evident, their parents become confused and worried sick.”

In her bestselling book, The Price of Privilege, Dr. Levine explains how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. Her second book, Teach Your Children Well tackles the contemporary narrow definition of success and provides practical suggestions for raising truly successful children in all aspects of life.

In addition to the work of Doctor Levine, many child development specialists, college admissions officers and companies are reexamining their true determinants of success. Perusing Stanford University’s Challenge Success website nets a treasure trove of research-based resources for parents and educators who believe that schools these days are too focused on grades and test scores. Instead, they should focus on creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration and communication leading to greater resilience, success and ultimately more meaningful lives.

Dr. Ron Ritchhart from Harvard University’s Project Zero was in Hong Kong last week speaking about how to develop what he calls “cultures of thinking” in the classroom and at home. He encourages the creation of environments where “individual and collective thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience.”

Diane Frankenstein, a child literacy expert guides parents and teachers in the art of Conversational Reading as an excellent way to stay engaged in the lives of older children. Talking about books helps kids convey feelings, develop empathy and continue to converse in a way that is not so personal, but gets to personal topics. Far from a passive, solitary activity, reading can be active, social and collaborative, particularly when a carefully constructed discussion ensues. She advises, “Read a story. Ask a question. Start a conversation.”

More than an additional extracurricular activity, tutor or AP class, children need time to be bored and the space to think deeply about ideas, discovering who they are as much as what they can do. After all, there really is no proven formula for future success and happiness, so why make adolescence so unpleasant? Why not enjoy our kids and listen to them, try to make the best decisions we can for them while we have the luxury of being the decision-makers, but more importantly, try to plant the seeds for them to make good decisions for themselves in the future?

Dr. Madeline Levine will be in Hong Kong on March 11 to speak at the HK Convention Centre at 7 p.m. as a guest of Bring Me A Book. Tickets can be purchased through HK Ticketing.

 

Meet The Author

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaking at HKIS, January 2015 IMG_0011

In today’s SCMP, and slightly longer version below:  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1692319/how-authors-can-make-books-come-alive-hong-kong-readers

Standing in the packed HKIS library, visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her eyes, takes a breath and begins. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco…” she says, reciting the opening line of one of her most recognized poems, Valentine for Ernest Mann, and the room is silent. It’s hard to know what these teenagers think as they sit, cross-legged, heads lowered, listening. But their thoughtful questions and deep, introspective reflections expressed after the talk show clearly that they have been deeply impressed by her words. With this talk, Nye offered these students a new way to approach poetry, both as consumers and as creators themselves.

“I learned to look at life as a long poem, filled with mundane, irritating, amazing and elated moments, ” reflected grade eight student, Sarthak Bajpai. Sophia Chuen, also in grade eight said, “Visiting authors allow us to learn that authors are real people too and that writing is thinking.”

Nye suggested that students keep a notebook with them always and that they pay attention to the ordinary moments in life and record three small ideas each day. The students learned that anyone can be a poet, that poetry is fun and that writing a book can take many, many iterations before the final version is published.

For most authors, producing a book is like birthing a child. Once that book exists, their lives are forevermore inextricably entwined. Most authors spend a fair amount of their non-writing time helping to grow the audience for their books. While the author receives some benefit in increasing book sales for this effort, the true benefit is really to the audience who gain further insights and a deeper understanding from hearing the author provide context and color about her process and result.

Meeting an author is a great way to make books come alive for readers. Many Hong Kong schools and organizations understand this and invest precious resources hosting authors to work with students, parents and teachers.

Last year HKIS hosted award-winning author/artist Grace Lin for a week as an artist in residence. As a Taiwanese-American who grew up in rural New York, Grace Lin’s books explore the immigrant experience, interlacing Chinese and American culture, and helping to articulate the competing feelings of pride and dislocation. In her evening talk for parents and children, Lin told the story of her childhood and gave insight into the decisions she made and how she felt about herself as an Asian American. While these underlying themes are present in her books, to hear her tell the story directly was much more powerful. As a result of this talk and seeing Grace Lin in the school, her book The Year of the Dog is my son’s favorite chapter book.

Ralph Fletcher, a renowned young adult fiction writer who’s books are particularly popular with young boys, spent a week at HKIS working with upper primary aged children. While there, Fletcher conducted certain workshops for elementary school aged boys, no girls allowed.   This was a brilliant strategy to encourage boys to embrace their talents as writers with the same enthusiasm as do more girls at that age.

Chinese International School (CIS) and HKIS will co-host award winning children’s book author Deborah Wiles at an event on March 4, 2015. In preparation for her visit, the entire upper primary school division is reading her book Each Little Bird That Sings. This is a great way to build enthusiasm for reading as a social activity and to nurture the community with a shared literary experience.

The Hong Kong Young Readers Festival is another great way to meet globally renowned authors. This year the festival will take place from 9-20 March, 2015 and has a full schedule of talks, workshops and events where children and adults can meet and interact with authors to learn about their process as well as the content of their books.

Meeting an author can be like meeting a hero. Unlike other professions, everyone is a writer. Some choose to pursue it as a profession, but even those who don’t are still writers. Meeting writers who have persevered through the difficulty, tedium and challenge of writing a book and having it published is inspirational for children and adults alike and can bring the written word to life in a whole new way.

Helping Teens Pick “Just Right Books”

My latest SCMP Between the Lines article appeared while I was out of town.  Here’s a link to the SCMP website, or the full text below:  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1670477/young-readers-benefit-curated-selection-books

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When children are little, part of the process of learning to read involves finding “just right books.” A just right book is one that interests a child, and that can be read fluently without struggling over more than a few words on a page. This is an important step toward reading fluency, and the process is relatively straightforward.

But once children are older finding “just right books” becomes trickier. Just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean she or he should yet. When children begin to read fluently parents often encourage more advanced books, but sometimes that can backfire, either ruining a book for a child, or exposing them inadvertently to inappropriate content.

Some parents have this idea that pushing young children into chapter books earlier and earlier makes them more accomplished or is an indicator of high intelligence. On the contrary, it’s actually robbing them of an extraordinarily rich world of content in picture books. Sophisticated parents understand that there’s a richness in picture books that doesn’t exist in the trendy, but rather straightforward popular young adult fiction. Oftentimes the language, vocabulary and humor in picture books are more subtle and advanced than in chapter books, and can help children develop critical thinking skills.

This is just another in a long line of inflationary pressure put on children. I recently spoke with a mother who told me her second grader was reading Percy Jackson to himself. An eight year old who can read Percy Jackson is superficially impressive, but how can an eight-year-old emotionally relate to a story told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy? What’s the point?

As children move into the teen years, finding appropriate books gets even more challenging. Because they can read everything, navigating a library or bookstore is akin to a minefield of unsuitable content. Keeping up with a voracious adolescent reader can be a full-time job.

So how do you help your burgeoning reader find the right books? Your school librarian is a great place to start. Most librarians have an extensive knowledge of and passion for books and once they get to know your child, can help match kids and with great books.

“To pick a good book you need to know your child, what mood he or she is in, his or her temperament and a wide range of books,“ says Maureen McCann, Hong Kong International School’s Middle School librarian. She suggests listening for “appeal terms” when you talk with your kids. What did they like about the last book they read? Try to determine if it’s the pacing, drama, exciting plot, or strong female character, for example, and that can help guide your next selection.

Think of your school librarian as your child’s book stylist. McCann likens book selection to buying clothing. “Everyone wants the well-edited closet. There’s an art to working a book shelf similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop.” McCann offers the library version of boutique shopping with a suggestion shelf of her favorites right in the front of the library. Some of her students select books exclusively from that shelf. Similarly, she has initiated a suggestions wall where children recommend books to their peers, and a special display for books about problems like bullying, eating disorders, divorce and other issues that teens might want to explore.

She suggests that children be allowed to browse with some autonomy. Let them discover the books on their own rather than hovering and deciding for them. She also uses a food analogy for picking books. Kids need nourishing literature and fun reads, or “snacks” – as she calls the lighter fiction books – for a healthy literary diet. Once you’ve selected a book, she suggests opening it to any page and reading a paragraph. Does it grab your attention? Do you like the character? These small investments in selecting the right book can save a lot of time in the end.

McCann also advises families to have a lot of books around the house. To be a good advisor, you have to be a good reader. You must model reading for your children, and not just on your iphone. If you’re not as familiar with a wide range of young adult literature, reading guides, essays and annotated book lists, like those by Bring Me A Book, Diane Frankenstein, Jim Trelease, and Paul Jennings for example, are great resources too.

Being a great reader is not about tackling the thickest tome you can plod your way through, but about curating your reading selections as carefully as you do your art and closet.