Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

How to stop young children from bothering you

on March 22, 2014

In the meantime, my little cousins grew as well, as children have the tendency to do. Therese was the same age as my little brother Abdul Kerim, i.e., four years my junior, and the three of us shared always a bedroom and usually the same bed. My favorite activity was to tell her stories at bedtime. No, not the Peter Rabbit variety, but more like the Thousand and One Nights variety, minus the PG13 factor. I made the stories up myself, long and tortuous sagas of some hero or heroine on a quest, that were “to be continued” the next night. She was a great audience; she would listen, spellbound, and react appropriately at the right time. She never failed to remind me eagerly the next evening to continue the story.

1001 Nights

I believe it must be then that I honed the story-telling skills I first developed in Jeddah, leading the gang of six through games of made-up stories. One story would test Therese’s fear limits, while another would explore what twist of events could bring her to tears. Sometimes, I would chuck all stories away and play a game of evoking emotions. How to make the other person laugh, or cry, without touching or tickling her. Therese would try grimacing, jumping, joking, and I would keep a poker face. Then I would make a great show of wanting to tickle her, blowing in my palms, rubbing them, pulling my arm back like the string of a bow, making great sound effects to rev up the suspense, and then point a tickling finger in toward her at slow motion speed and shrill ululations. It never failed to drive her insane with giggles and laughter, trying to protect her tummy from my tickles, which of course never happened, since the rule was: not to touch the opponent.

Even better, I would love making her cry. She would try first. Again, I would either keep the poker face on, totally immune to whatever she would do or say, or just laugh and say, “Hahaha, I don’t care!” Then my turn would come. I’d start with really sad facts, and she’d imitate me and laugh and say, “Hahaha, I don’t care!” So, I ‘d start digging my brains for what she really cared for. I would remember that she was not just her parents’ cherished daughter, but also Grandpa Chang’s favorite, back in Taiwan. So I would make up a drawn out story ending with Grandpa Chang hating her guts and not wanting to even look at her face, followed by all our uncles and aunts also turning away from her, unjustly, for some wrong she had not committed. Poor Therese would bawl, and dissolve in tears, and pummel me with her fists in anger, and shout, “It’s not true! It’s not true! No!” and I would finally stop it, and laugh, “Hahaha! I won! I made you cry!” But she would not snap out of it, and continue sobbing and shouting angrily.

When I asked for her permission to write memories of her, Therese said that I should make sure to mention how I scared her stiff with my bedtime stories and caused her many sleepless nights. Strangely enough, I do not remember that at all… (wink, wink!)

Other favorite games would be card games. Most of these had been taught to us by either Aunt Lily or Chang JieJie (Elder Sister Chang). Chang JieJie was a neighbor of Aunt Lily’s, from back in Taiwan. She had majored in French and came for a prolonged visit that year. Therese was a smart and quick learner, but a sore loser. We dreaded seeing her lose, because she would kick a fuss and cry and throw the cards at us. Thankfully, since she was a respectable opponent and gave us a good fight, that did not happen often. Of course, children never ever lose a game on purpose, even if they want to avoid fusses, and we made sure to play fair. Therese had a particularly good memory, and if we played the memory game, she often beat us all to it.

playing cards

However, my favorite hobby was still reading, and if I was plunged in the middle of a stormy cape-et-d’epee novel, I really could not put it down just to play with Therese. She would tug my sleeve and keep pleading, “Er Jie, Er Jie (Second Elder Sister), please let’s play cards!” Finally, I thought of a great solution. If I taught her to read novels, then she would be engrossed in them too and would stop bothering me. So I pulled out my favorite, none other than good old Three Musketeers, and started reading it to her, sitting side by side in the great bed.

Here is the grand secret to teaching young children to read. I’m sure many have discovered it too, but for those who despair and want a foolproof method, here goes: First, it has to be an enjoyable adventure, both in the book’s content, and as an experience. You sit up in bed, snuggle comfortably with pillows arranged to give maximum comfort, give the learner your whole attention, and read with great expression. Exaggerate the expression. Shout for exclamation marks. Sing for question marks. Make funny voices whenever those quotation marks open up. But most importantly, stop now and then to discuss and comment on the plot, the characters or the setting. Do not act like a schoolteacher. Just act like you yourself are greatly enjoying this moment, and this book. Second, make sure the child’s eyes on on the text. She has to figure out the relationship between those words on the page and that wonderful story unfurling around her. Thirdly, gradually, start involving the child in the reading process.

the three musketeers

So I started reading The Three Musketeers, which, as previously mentioned, I had already read ten times over, and gradually, complained of a sore throat, lack of voice, etc, to make Therese take over some of the reading. So she would read a sentence here and a paragraph there. Whenever difficult vocabulary presented itself, I would just say it and explain it in a quick way, and go on. Eventually, she would be able to read an entire page. Then, a hundred pages or so into the book, I put it face down, said I was tired, and walked off. Therese was devastated. “Er Jie, Er Jie, come back! Please! I want to know what happens next!”  To which, I replied that all she had to do was to read for herself, I was tired and would not do it. So she picked up the book, and forced herself to continue reading all by herself, the same way we did so in Jeddah. We wanted to know what happened next, and no one was going to tell us.

Now, it may sound too easy to be true. Of course, Therese was smart, and she had already learned to put words together and to sound out new words in school. But, and this is where it gets important, there is one important step at this stage, which very few parents or teachers are aware of. It is the step of how to move from reading phonetically — sounding out words — to reading metacognitively, or, to put it simply, to read with the eyes, while the brain is busy enjoying the plot, or analyzing the details, or predicting the outcome, and so on. No, it is not unrealistic to leave the reader to his own devices in a hundred pages. Usually, an author has his or her own set of vocabulary within which he or she moves comfortably. And in a hundred pages, most of these words have already appeared. So the reader is not bogged down by the meeting of unknown words and is able to keep on reading, powered on by the pull of the plot, which should have set into high gear by the hundredth page.

Years later, I taught my sister Iffat to read the same way. And it worked equally well, though it was in English this time, and I needed to get my hands on an English translation of The Three Musketeers. It was also then that I discovered, being now more mature, that the content was not really suited for young children, if you really wanted them to understand every detail of the plot. Now, my cousin Therese ended up going to Harvard and my sister Iffat to MIT. OK, OK, I can hear from here all the scientists telling me this is not a scientific study and the results might be totally coincidental. I also told the method to my professor of Methodology of Teaching English As A Foreign Language, who shook his head and said he had never heard of such a method. Well, much later I also taught my own children to read this way and, if I may say so, they did not end up badly either (more details in later entries.) Whatever the case, being able to read by oneself is the most crucial skill you can give a child. He or she can teach herself almost anything, if only she can read it.

So, I beamed when I finally could read in peace, and our cards or Monopoly sessions spaced out to a weekly basis.


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