I’ve discovered a secret disciplinary tool for my toddler.
Yes, that’s right. Poetry.
The sentence “If we run our errands efficiently, we can read more poetry” is one I never imagined I’d hear myself utter, but say it I do. And it has a positive effect, too. As does, “Let’s sit quietly and read some poetry.” I also didn’t expect that asking, “Would you like to hear another poem?” would be met with enthusiastic cheers from my 28-month-old daughter.
“Another poem!” she calls. “More poetry, please, Mama!”
It seems obvious in retrospect, but somehow even I–a literature teacher!–had had the false assumption that poetry was “harder” than other types of literature. But when you think about it, it’s not surprising that children like and respond to poetry. Books for children, especially board and picture books, are full of rhyme and rhythm, which appeals to children and helps them learn. Oh, how those Dr. Seuss or Julia Donaldson stories lodge in your brain (and are, at times, extremely and annoyingly hard to get rid of from your head, hard to get rid of from your bed, hard to get rid of in a box, hard to get rid of with a fox).
And as parents, we often find ourselves speaking in a sing-song tone or making up little songs and chants to offer information or ease our way through activities. My toothbrushing song is never going to be a pop hit, but it entertains my daughter and has helped her learn how to brush her teeth very well. Humans love and respond to rhythm and music.
So when I saw how much my daughter loves reading in general and also how she likes music and dancing, I thought I’d try her out with some poetry. We began with nonsense poems, such as those by Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan, and Colin McNaughton. “Another one!” she’d order, in a delighted tone, after every rhyme I read.
Next, I bought an anthology that contains hundreds of poems from different time periods and from around the world. I started reading it one day while in the car (don’t worry, my wife was driving), and our daughter was transfixed. Sometimes she interrupted me and said she didn’t like a particular poem and wanted a different one, and it’s been interesting to try to understand what she found off-putting, though so far we haven’t discerned a consistent pattern. But mostly she sat and listened. She was not happy when we had to park the car and go run some errands, but when she was told the book of poems would be waiting for us when we got back, she quickly got a move on.
In this book and in other poetry books we’ve looked at since then, we’ve read poems in Scots dialect (Robert Burns) and poems in older English (Shakespeare), poems about the seasons and poems about countries we’ve never been to, love poems and animal-shaped poems, serious poems (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) and silly poems (Benjamin Zephaniah). We’re willing to try anything, and we try not to assume that one type of poetry will be more difficult than another.
While I got the first anthology just to see if my child enjoyed it, it’s been fascinating to see the effect of the poetry on her behavior. Like most toddlers, our daughter is energetic and opinionated and sometimes really doesn’t want to do things that have to be done. But the promise (okay, bribe) of poetry seems to be the trick these days. “When you and Mummy come back from the grocery store, I’ll read you some more poems,” I said to her just this morning, and she took my wife’s hand and hurried off.
William Congreve didn’t quite say that poetry “hath charms to soothe the savage beast,” but it appears to be true. The sound of the words and the imagery of the content appeals to our daughter, and indeed to all three of us. We can talk about the meaning of the poems and we can repeat phrases that we’ve enjoyed. Her absolute favorite poem so far has been Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”. She likes to repeat, “I rise, I rise, I rise.” With this poem, for example, we spoke about the oppression of different groups of people, and how we want to fight against it. One morning, she randomly began repeating, “Does my sassiness upset you?…I rise, I rise, I rise,” and we then were able to discuss activism and equal rights. She then informed me that she’s an activist. So through poetry, our daughter also is learning about culture and history and getting an important message — on top of behaving really well!
I know that poetry won’t be the answer to all our parenting issues, but I’m definitely grateful that it’s working for the time being. When your child politely and sweetly requests, “More poetry please!” the only possible answer can be, “Of course.”