This summer my son learned to read. Like all the childhood milestones, it seemed to happen all at once. One day he was wobbling on his seat, teetering back and forth, liable to fall on his face at any moment; the next he could sit up. One day he could cruise around the room only by holding onto the furniture; the next he was taking a single independent step, and then another, and then another. And even though it happened at the end of a year of school in which my son, like the majority of other American kindergarteners, was engaged for hours each day in explicit reading instruction, when the milestone finally arrived it felt more like the sudden flick of a switch than the end of an arduous process. One day he was protesting when I asked him to “help” me read some simple text, the effort visible in his face. And the next—or so it seemed—he was curled up on the couch with a library book, murmuring the words to himself, so deep in concentration that it required several shoutings of his name before he would bestir himself to come to dinner.
What happened wasn’t just the acquisition of a skill (although a phrase like that badly simplifies the complicated brain development necessary for a person to read). More than learning to read, my son had become a reader: discovering the old favorites (Tintin in Tibet, or The Trumpet of the Swan) that I had left on his shelves for the day when he would be ready for them, asking the librarian for the Star Wars books he desired, even trying to read and walk down the street at the same time. (After a few fruitless attempts to break him of this habit, I gave up and let him crash into a pole.) I was thrilled, of course; truth be told, I had expected this day to come a bit sooner, and I had been looking forward to a time when my son—always, shall we say, a somewhat high-maintenance child—might have access to a bottomless source of entertainment that was not dependent on my own finite attentions. Of course, more than simply getting him out of my hair (really!), I wanted him to learn the pleasures of reading, an activity that has brought me more, and more reliable, joy than any other. As a character in a novel by Imre Kertész says, in one of my favorite lines about reading, it is “a narcotic which pleasantly blurs the merciless outlines of the life that holds sway over us.”
Reading, it seems to me, ought to be considered a developmental step on a par with walking or talking, the milestones usually thought of as the most significant. Like them, it offers a new kind of independence. The child who takes a first step no longer has to rely on others to carry him wherever he wants to go: independent motion allows him to uniquely assert his own will. The child who can speak can convey her needs directly and coherently, without relying on an adult to decipher her gestures and cries. And the child who can read is able to remove the filter that exists between himself and the outside world, and engage with that world directly, without having to ask another person to interpret its mysterious signs and symbols. Now he can see when the right subway stop arrives, or read the flavors of ice cream, or decipher the instructions to a toy.
The disadvantages of this new development were obvious immediately. First, my son was no longer susceptible to the kinds of white lies that parents tend to resort to as shorthand when they don’t have the energy to explain their reasons: No, they don’t have the kind of ice cream you want a half hour before dinner; the egregious movie you have become inexplicably obsessed with isn’t playing anywhere around here. Nor can I shield him from language that I don’t want him to use or concepts that I think are too adult for him: instead, when confronted with a poster for the movie Dinner for Schmucks, I find myself having to explain what a schmuck is, and why it’s not a nice word to use about someone, and then (naturally) why one would want to have a dinner party for them.
These are not particularly enlightening examples: it’s perhaps just as well for a movie like Dinner for Schmucks to remain on the outside of a six-year-old’s filter. But they are a necessary price for the inestimable gains that the filter’s removal yields. More than anything else, what reading offers to a child is the ability to pursue his own intellectual interests, without relying on another person as guide. When my son depended on me to read to him, I controlled the material. I thought of myself as a benevolent dictator, of course, inflicting a diet of children’s classics—E.B. White, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen—in an attempt to teach cultural literacy and good taste. But the books I chose were an obvious effort to mold my son into the kind of reader I wanted him to be, which is also to say the kind of person I wanted him to be. This is a mother’s natural impulse, but such control can’t continue forever. Reading independently allows a child to mold himself, which in the end is a skill just as valuable as anything he might learn from the books he chooses about fossils, or Star Wars, or Tintin. He is learning about his own interests, his own drives, the person he wants to be.
When my son was a toddler, one of his favorite storybooks was “The Runaway Bunny,” a fable about a baby rabbit who repeatedly tries to hide from his mother, only to have her tell him that she will find him no matter where he goes. “I will be a bird and fly away from you,” the little bunny says. “I will be a tree that you come home to,” his mother replies. “I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you,” he says. “I will become the wind, and blow you where I want you to go,” she replies. Child psychologists say this book is comforting: read at an age when many children experience separation anxiety, it consoles them with the idea that their mother will always be there, even when she seems to be absent. But I have to admit that I always found it mildly sinister. Shouldn’t the mother bunny allow her child a little more space, a little more autonomy? And so I would silently edit the text to make the mother bunny more comforting, less controlling: I would change the line to “I will become the wind, and blow you wherever you want to go.”
I realize now, of course, that my efforts to downplay the mother bunny’s control were my own expression of maternal control, a desire to expose my son only to the kinds of messages I thought were most beneficial for him to hear. This may be defensible regarding a two-year-old, but not for an older child. Encouraging my son to read on his own involves, for me, a kind of letting go: of the sweet time when we once read board books together, when he depended on me for information and intellectual sustenance; and, likewise, of my fantasy of my child’s mind as a lump of clay waiting for me to form. Reading on his own, he becomes his own wind. And maybe I, one day, will be the sailboat.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.