Pleasure and children

I attended a workshop at the kid’s school this week on how to support young readers. My attention was piqued when the first sentence out of the leader’s mouth was something like this: “Reading should be pleasurable for children.”

[YES!!! I love this school!!!]

She went on to explain that children who learn to love reading will be strong, active readers as they grow up. Just like learning to talk, which required no flashcards or tutors, children are naturally curious and when reading is fun, they will want to do it. It’s when adults make things serious, and stressed, and push children to read before they’re ready, that reading ceases to be associated with pleasure. So this school’s theory is to have books everyone, to support children where they are in the process with “just right” books, and to have lots of choices available to the children so they can find something they’re interested in reading, and are not forced to read what everyone else is reading. They keep reading pleasurable, and the kids learn to read — some earlier, some later, but all of them read.

This made me realize how early in life we become conditioned to do things that don’t bring us pleasure. Filling out pre-printed worksheets that force you to copy letters over and over again, just isn’t pleasurable. And something like being quizzed on whether I spelled a word correctly is the opposite of fun, it’s stressful and unpleasant. It’s no wonder that kids would rather text where they can use pictures and alternative word spellings — it makes writing fun again.

So what else do we ask children to do to abandon their pleasure for the sake of “growing up” or “being responsible” or even for the parent’s ease and comfort? What about chores? I already receive criticism from people about not making my kids help with the laundry—how else are they going to learn??? But what if making laundry a chore for children, translates into it feeling like a chore when you’re an adult too?

Play for children has become pushed to the side to make way for school, tutors, lessons, competing in sports, and negotiated social engagements. And if we as a society can’t make room for children to play, how can we make room for ourselves to play?

It’s easy to start to think about the “dark side” of pleasure. If children are allowed to play all the time, when will they learn to be responsible adults? If adults can just do whatever they please, won’t we just waste our live away compulsively shopping, gambling, or playing video games? I’ve heard several references over the past couple of days to the game Minecraft, particularly around how children and adults get addicted to it. I see the addiction as a symptom of our lack of pleasure, rather than an example of what bad might happen if we choose pleasure.

Let’s use video games as an example. We’ve removed real adventure from our lives. Children don’t go outside to build forts or climb trees on a regular basis — they aren’t having real life adventures anymore because we’re afraid for their safety or what other people may think. But it’s safe to have them inside, on a computer, not interacting with strangers or risking their physical well being. Children naturally want to experience the pleasure that comes from true adventure, but since real-life adventure is off limits, they meet that need with video games.

And this lack of adventure translates to adults as well. We satisfy our need for adventure in the form of action/adventure movies (that seem to get more extreme every year) or even with video games. Or many weekend warriors who strive to add adventure to their lives, push themselves harder than they should for the adrenaline rush, and end up injured. Or we spend lots of money on gear that we hope will make it easier to be adventurous, but that we never actually use.

For me, it’s a lot easier to make space for my children to play and have adventures than it is for me to do so. I appreciate the definition of play offered by Stuart Brown, author of the book Play: “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and suspends self-consciousness and a sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.”

According to this definition, my play in the past few days has come in the form of reading erotica. It is enjoyable, mostly purposeless (I am using it to inspire my own writing), suspends my sense of time, and makes me want to do it again!

It’s probably not what the school means by making reading pleasurable?!?!?

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