“I hate this stupid book! I want to kill it!” shouted my son, the avid reader, after initially digging in to his summer reading assignment. Strange. I didn’t think this novel assigned by a beloved teacher would cause problems. I figured my boy was just in a dramatic mood. It happens a lot (yep, he’s mine!) so I told him he could read it later. But every time I brought it up, he would read something else.
I insisted he stop procrastinating. He refused; I offered to read the book out loud. He reluctantly agreed and we started reading. And that’s when I understood.
“Shiloh” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is about an abused dog with a drunken owner. The dog is rescued by a boy who must hide him from his family. It’s a classic coming-of-age novel with moral dilemmas all over the place. It has all the right stuff for its intended audience.
In fact, I tried to hide my own tears as I read aloud, but it was impossible. My son started crying too (which is rare—he usually comforts me by saying “it’s just a book”) and then yelling again.
At 8 years old, he is just learning how to deal with emotions, especially overwhelming ones. Teachers have told me that he is a sensitive and empathetic kid, especially for such a high energy boy.
But we read a lot, and even very sad books have never elicited such a reaction from him. So I asked him why the outburst and he answered that he had never read a book where some people are so mean to animals. This is true. Nazis yes, hurt puppies, not so much.
I told him that I needed to think about it and we moved on to “Stuart Little.”
At first, I thought I should tell him to tough it out and read the book. How else can we teach children to cope with emotions and the inevitable curves and tragedies that life throws at us? His teacher (who is excellent) assigned this book.
At eight, he is too young for us to green light the idea of not following homework directions from school. Also, this book is a gateway book in some respect. Books are getting more complex for this age, and unfortunately, the dog always dies. Think “Lassie,” “Old Yeller.” “Where the Red Fern Grows” is one of my favorites. We can’t just let him skip all the great books because they are sad.
I mean, he’s at a Jewish school learning the history of our people, which certainly isn’t all heartwarming. If we had wanted that we would have sent him to a Montessori near our house which doesn’t teach history to the elementary school kids because it is, and I quote the administration, “too sad.”
They also don’t allow the celebration of any holidays at school because “some kids are always left out.” My take has always been that I am not raising a delicate flower—I am raising a mensch.
On the other hand, I don’t want him to be overwhelmed with sadness, if his developing nervous system can’t process it well. But back to the first hand again, I also want to be wary of turning into my mother, who didn’t tell us that that Nazis invaded at the end of “The Sound of Music,” because our VHS tape conveniently ended as the Von Trapp Family sang at the festival. When I confronted my Soviet-era immigrant mother about this as a teenager, she just shrugged it off: “What was I supposed to do? Explain Nazis to a 6-year-old?”
It comes down to this: I don’t want to be that sheltering, but I also want to be sensitive. So I devised a straightforward plan that my husband signed onto. We told our son that he doesn’t have to stomach the rest of the book as long as he writes a thoughtful book report about why he does not want to read the book. The old “Write About Why You Don’t Want to Write” trick. I also emailed his teacher to let her know the situation, and to ask if there is a different book she would like him to read instead.
Every kid is different, but as parents we need to do our best to find the right balance between protecting our children as they grow and teaching them how to cope with life, which can be “so mean,” and so, so sad sometimes.