I’ve been a Young Adult Librarian for more than five years now and have noticed a concerning trend that I’m calling the “Positively-Negative Parenting” Phenomenon.
Every parent wants their children to read. Reading goes hand in hand with education and all parents want their children to succeed in school, get educated and acquire the tools they need to do well in life. To that end, parents encourage children to read. Which is a wonderful goal. But what happens when parents sabotage their childrens’ literary efforts without realizing the damage being committed. What happens when the parent is “positively-negative”?
The Wake-Up Call
(Names in this story have been changed to protect customer identities.) Last week, I had a mother, Rose, and her teenage daughter, Sasha, come to the reference desk. The first words out of the mother’s mouth was about how her daughter didn’t like to read. The mother had tried giving her daughter all kinds of books to read and she didn’t like any of them. Therefore Sasha didn’t like to read. She was a smart girl, her mother assured me, Sasha just didn’t like to read.
I started talking to Sasha, asking the normal librarian questions to try and narrow down a genre or title that might appeal to her. (i.e. “What kind of TV shows/movies do you like? What kind of video games? etc.) After discovering that Sasha enjoyed the new Teen Wolf show on MTV as well as Vampire Diaries on CW, I took her into our YA Area to see what titles were actually on the shelf that might have appeal. While I was talking to Sasha, Rose often interjected - she had given Sasha Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, but Sasha didn’t read it.
Now, my style of “lets find book suggestions” goes something like this: I walk around my YA Area with the teen pulling books off the shelf for the teen to look over. By the time we finish walking the area I will have pulled between five and ten possible titles. I then leave the teen to peruse the selections to see if any have appeal (there is usually at least one title in the stack that the teen picks up). As we walked around the section I executed my usual process, talking to Sasha, pulling titles off the shelf, giving a brief description and letting her make a split-second decision to take another look at the title or move on to the next. As we did this, Rose continued to make comments about how she had given her daughter this title or that title that Sasha wouldn’t read.
My wake-up call came when I pulled Andrea Cremer’s Nightshade off the shelf for Sasha to consider. Sasha showed intense interest as I described the plot and actually reached out to take the book, when her mother grabbed the book out of my hand and told me that there was no way her daughter would read that book. It was too long. Now, Nightshade is a little over 450 pages in length, so it isn’t a skinny read, but Sasha had showed interest. Inside, I was outraged; how dare Rose take away a book that her daughter actually expressed interest in! I managed to keep an outer cool and simply took the book back from Rose and handed to Sasha saying, “If she likes it, she will read it.” After pulling several more titles I left Sasha (and her mother) in the YA Area to take a look through the books we’d pulled as possible titles of interest.
Several minutes later I noticed Sasha walking out with a book tucked under her arm. Nightshade was the book she picked.
As I thought over my encounter with Sasha and Rose, I realized that Rose’s behavior, which I have dubbed “positively-negative parenting” was something that I’d seen over and over again. This phenomenon is when a parent, with the best intentions, tries to encourage their teen to read, but in the process constantly references failed former attempts at reading. One minute the parent is encouraging reading then, the next minute, the parent is bringing to mind failure, humiliation and disappointment in their teen. While I am not a psychologist, I cannot help but wonder what kind of negative impact this kind of parenting has on teen readers. It is an issue I plan to explore.
Now, I don’t know if Sasha will make it through that book. She may decide it isn’t for her. I told her that she couldn’t hurt my feelings by telling me she didn’t like a book. If I know what she doesn’t like I have a better chance of finding something she does like. All I asked of her was that she make a real effort to read the book. (That’s one of the main purposes of YA Librarianship, to foster a love of reading in teens.) I don’t care what a teen reads as long as they are reading.
Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon? I’d love to hear how you address it.