Our four-year-old is learning how to read. He is also learning how to not read. Take him to the toy department of a store and he can read surprisingly well. The words on the boxes all spring to life with vast meaning. Sit him down with a book at home and letters no longer make pronounceable sounds; words are cryptic hieroglyphs on the page.
At first blush his selective comprehension might seem like laziness. And it probably is, to some degree. But it also represents an understanding of the economic value of knowledge. When there is something he wants, he suddenly has knowledge to offer. When knowing offers nothing but tedium, he naturally knows nothing.
His strategy of using reading as currency is obvious. The other day, he quickly read the word Batman on the cable guide because he likes that show. He has become quite a fan of the old 1960s TV version (and for anyone who thinks Adam West is not a great actor, you try to say some of the lines he had to say with a straight face).
Another time, the boy also easily read the sentence, “Do you want chips and cheese?” when his mother wrote a note for him. He really wanted chips and cheese, which momentarily made him a super-reader. With a full belly, he became illiterate once more.
He has yet to embrace the concept of delayed gratification: make your parents happy and proud now, and you are more likely to receive some as-yet-unnamed reward in the future. Consequently, we are left with the task of trying to make reading, for its own sake, seem less toilsome.
We have a collection of magnetic letters stuck to our refrigerator. He uses these to spell out words. His baby brother likes to play with the letters too, but his favorite game is to push them underneath the fridge.
One day, the big boy was using the magnetic letters to spell out his full name. He was lacking a letter, so we spent our time trying to retrieve some of them from underneath the appliance. We finally found the letter he needed, but there were still more letters underneath that we couldn’t reach. He wanted all the letters back.
He had seen me push the fridge away from the wall once before so he grabbed hold and tried to push that monster out of the way. Of course, it didn’t budge. “Help me move this,” he insisted of me.
I had nearly destroyed its wall plug the last time I’d moved it. “No. I’m not moving the fridge again,” I told him.
He put his hands on his hips and gave me a look of disgust. “I thought you were trying to be helpful,” he growled.
The jury is still out on reading, and delayed gratification is yet to come, but it appears as though I’ve done a bang-up job of teaching him scorn.