The novelist is reading from her latest collection, a story about loss and despair. And in the back of the room, our son is doing snow angels on the carpet.
This is what can happen when you bring your children to literary events. They don’t always want to sit still and be quiet. They’d much rather be watching Curious George than listening to Elizabeth George.
And yet my husband and I regularly take our four-year-old son, Dashiell, to readings. We’ve even been known to let him sit in the front row.
Critics frown at this, and I get it. No one wants their literary moment ruined by a toddler’s outburst. In the case of the snow angels, no one was more mortified than me—and I whisked Dash outside before the audience even had a chance to notice.
But keeping kids away from events like this isn’t really the answer either. Parents are often reluctant to bring their children to places that require quiet or are considered too “adult,” and yet research shows that sharing your passions and interests with your children can spark their curiosity and make them better learners.
If that’s true, then Dash is already a pro. He was at the party for my first book, experimenting with taking his first steps and chewing on a pacifier. He was at a book launch for my husband, Art Taylor, last fall, excited about the cake. At a recent poetry event he sat quietly during the first reading, laughing with delight when the audience laughed.
Each time we learn new tricks. Bring toys, but quiet ones. Food is good, too. We arrive early and stake out the bookstore for alcoves we can relocate to when he gets bored. We also know our limits—no very formal events, late-night readings, or bars where the alcohol is flowing.
It’s hard to expect a little one to be patient for too long. That poetry event I mentioned earlier? After the first poet, Dash was done sitting quietly and popped up and down every few minutes to get crackers and cheese, announcing in loud whispers how each tasted. We’ve had to intercept Matchbox car crashes and prevent him from climbing on the backs of couches. Many times we’ll miss most of the reading but get a grand tour of the outside of the building and earn a pocketful of rocks and leaves.
So why bring him at all? Why risk annoying our friends, the readers, the audience? An easy answer might be the practical issue of money—it’s expensive to hire a babysitter. But that’s not it, at all. We simply like having him there. We want him there.
When I was a kid, I remember how endless Sunday Mass used to feel, listening to the priest talk about things I didn’t understand. I had to sit still and be quiet. And yet I was aware that there was something important going on, something special and significant, and it was nice to be part of that.
I don’t equate readings with church (although good ones can be a spiritual experience in their own right), but my husband and I see Dashiell picking up on the specialness of the events we take him to. During one reading, a woman recited a long poem while Dash parked his cars in the back of the room. But when she started firing off a list of names in a rapid succession, he looked up and started laughing at the rhythm of the words. Another time we were at a friend’s reading, sitting in the children’s section flipping through picture books, when he looked up at me and whispered, “She just said ‘son of a gun’! That’s not a nice thing to say.”
There’s something cool about Dash growing up among writers. We’ve seen him arrange his stuffed animals in a semicircle on his bed and open a book to give them a reading. He has his own library card and checks out all his books by himself, dragging a stool to the counter so he can reach the scanner.
We’re teaching him, one (sometimes painful) experience at a time, that literature is something to be celebrated and cherished, that words and stories are special. We’re teaching him that he has a place in our world and that we want him there. Regardless of whether it all goes perfectly or not.
Tara Laskowski is the author of two short story collections, Bystanders and Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons. She lives in Virginia.