When I was nine and my father asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said, “Something I can build and then when it’s built I can play with it.”
Fifty years later, when my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said, “Fifty pieces of rebar two feet long.”
Both of these requests were a challenge, the first because Legos hadn’t been invented yet, and the second because, well, it just didn’t seem like much of a Christmas present.
In my family Christmas was always about love. The question, “What do you want for Christmas?” was not just another way of saying, “So what’s my shopping list for you this year?” It was more, “Tell me about your loves, that I may show you that I love what you love, because I love you.” (In case you haven’t guessed, I love to build.)
Perish the thought, but I have to confess that one fear I have for children these days is that they will be given a book. Correction, I fear that they will be given a book more out of fear than love—fear that they aren’t reading yet, or that they aren’t reading faster than other kids in the class. In schools, in airports, in planes, in the cloud, I keep hearing a pervasive cacophony of concern about whether a child is going to read soon enough or well enough to succeed in school (and it goes without saying that if they fall behind there, they will be behind for life.) Read: FAILURE!)
The same year that Santa brought me cool things to build, I was also given a book on sailing ships. My parents somehow knew that I loved sailing, ships and the ocean more than I even knew. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read. (I actually did not read until the following summer—the summer before fifth grade.) I read the titles and the captions because the fabulous pictures helped me figure them out. None of that mattered; I loved it.
So, please do go into a bookstore before Christmas. In fact, go with your children, one at a time. Wander, browse and listen. Pretend that together you are looking for presents for other people, but know that you are watching and listening for their own interests. (Very few children will fail to tip their hands about what they love, even if they know the task is to find something for someone else.)
Should you ask a teacher or librarian or storekeeper about reading level? Sure, it can’t hurt, but if you are thinking too much about that, you will miss the point. You are not giving a book in hopes that it will have a positive effect on their academic achievement. Santa’s message is “I know what you love,” not “I, too, am on the team that wants you to be successful in school.” Selecting books for children should reflect their passions; degree of difficulty can be a secondary consideration.
Okay. So let’s say you know all this and are still afraid for your child’s academic success. The science of learning can remind us of what we know in our hearts. For instance, research on “The Arts and Human Development”by The National Endowment for the Arts gives us windows into how complex and multi-directional are the routes to academic success. Even if our top focus were those nasty test scores, we would still be wise to cater to the loves of children.
Yes, give your child a book for Christmas, but remember that research also says that you might do just as well to give your child a drum, or some paints, or a dollhouse, or a toolbox, or 50 pieces of rebar, or a box of crayons and a ream of 500 sheets of white paper.
Here’s a cool gift idea: a message in an bottle that says: “This certificate entitles you to one Day at the Museum of Natural History and an Ice Cream Sundae of your choosing.”
Our metric for a good gift should continue to be the time-honored one of delight; for delight is a window into our children’s souls, and the research also supports the tradition of Christmas that it’s all about the love we generate this time of year—and all year long, too.