Saturday, May 06, 2006

What Ails Us?

There are many issues that affect our children. I believe that how we handle each one is critical. I can't relax about my child's welfare but I also believe that I've learned enough about raising a child to decide when an authority is necessary and when one isn't.

I'm actually not a parent who eschews the advice of parenting books. I don't think that they, The Books, make us overly paranoid or strip us of self-confidence. I also don't rush to the doctor every time there's an illness or problem. I like to think that I take a balanced, judicious approach to raising my child. Of course, I have encountered some people who avoid The Books and some who rush to the doctor always (and those who do both). I wonder how much might this be a function of our blind respect for authority.

I've just read an article about bibliotherapy by Maeve Visser Knoth in The Horn Book that challenges authority in an interesting way. She outlines her own approach to bibliotherapy as distinct from that of parents and teachers: rather than use appropriate books to guide children through difficult experiences, use them in advance of such experiences. She explains:

Rather than address what is happening in the present, I am inclined to prepare children for emotional experiences before they occur. I would rather inoculate children than treat the symptoms of the emotional trauma. We give children vaccinations against measles. We can’t vaccinate against divorce, but we can give children some emotional knowledge to use when their families, or other families they know, do go through a divorce. I advocate that we read picture books about death and divorce and new babies when no one is dying, when a marriage is strong, before anyone is pregnant.

Simply put, in contrast, traditional bibliotherapy involves matching children with characters with which they will identify. This allows a child to move through the same/similar experience(s) as that of the character, releasing emotions and gaining insight into the present problems of both himself and the character.

The author isn’t a therapist but I think that she's on to something. For those of us to whom this sounds like common sense, we must bear in mind what the author points out: parents routinely ask librarians for books in order to help a child cope with, say, the death of a loved one and teachers often "search for books that will address the emotional lives of the children in their care" as difficulties occur.

I was glad to discover this article because I'd recently made a decision that her ideas supported. I didn't need the affirmation so much as I wanted to hear someone else say that this approach only made sense.

Recently, it occurred to me once again that I should be dealing with the issue of racism because my daughter, inevitably, would be confronted with it. I struggled daily with the issue of beginning a dialogue with her on the subject. I wanted her to be forewarned and forearmed but I didn't want to frighten her or cause her to see monsters at every turn.

Some people around me offered opinions and these were divided along the single line of exactly when to begin the dialogue. Nobody argued that such communication shouldn't occur. I could discuss it before she even realized that there was a superficial difference in complexion between herself and many around her or I could wait until some racially-motivated comment or slur occurred and then discuss it with her.

Frankly, neither option seemed palatable. In the first scenario, I would have to alert her to a difference and thereby possibly cause her to think along complexion lines. In the second scenario, I would risk her one day staring blankly, hurt and confused on the playground and hope that she might bring it up with me.

This wasn't actually a dichotomy, however, since there was a third option: I could begin a discussion about peoples and cultures of the world----alerting her to the concept of difference in this respect instead of addressing head-on racism--using visual aids. (I had decided long ago that I would instruct our children--even before one existed--in matters cultural and religio-spiritual.) I could begin now, at any time, in fact, and Devyn would naturally notice differences of complexion without the need to point it out.

Turning to books only made sense and answering when to do so was easy but I was reluctant to heed my intuition. On the one hand, doing what only made sense made me nervous: maybe there was a correct way to handle the situation and I just didn't know about it? On the other hand, I felt very strongly that books-as-dialogue wouldn't be of much use once my little girl had heard the ugly language of racism, that they might just deepen raw wounds, just as Ms. Visser Knoth notes about the reading-through-experience approach:

I worry that the child who hears the story while experiencing grief will find it simplistic. What if, after thirty-two pages, the reader does not feel better? What if he feels worse? Will he feel that he has failed because Everett Anderson’s grief is now all wrapped up and the book is closed? Similarly, does the child who is living through his mother’s breast cancer treatments want to revisit them in fiction? Would he not rather escape to Narnia? I am not a therapist and don’t pretend to know.
I noted my impulse to override intuition but, inwardly, my decision was already made. I would begin using books-as-dialogue in the category of world cultures and religions beforehand and, thereby, in a natural progression, discuss prejudices, biases and the language that develops in those belief systems.

Ms. Visser Knoth states that she doesn't have teams of research to back up her approach to reading. Would teams of research even be necessary? Can’t we simply say, "Hey, this makes sense. Let's give a child tools to deal with events he's likely to encounter." Can't we, as parents, make some decisions without the benefit of expert advice? Is our struggle with the question of what to do in the face of problems complicated by a deeply-rooted sense of obedience to authority? Does our intuition--and, in this case, an intuitive approach--have to be ignored simply because it doesn't have statistical or academic sanction?

The originating article: What Ails Bibliotherapy? by Maeve Visser Knoth.

A good article as explanation of bibliotherapy.

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