|Charlie Brown's Super Book of Questions and Answers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
At 15 months, my son already has an extensive vocabulary. He loves to tell me about the images in his books using words, sound effects, or sign language. Communication is an exciting and fun game for him. I suppose that's why I began asking him about the pictures in his books, "What is this? What sound does that make?" Much of the time he would have the "correct" answer and I found myself agreeing, "Yes, that's right." Occasionally, he would give a response I didn't understand or he would call the picture by some other name, leaving me uncertain about an appropriate response.
Those "incorrrect" answers were the ones that got me thinking. I don't like the idea of correcting him by saying, "No, that's not a dog, it's a cat". Of course I want him to learn the difference between a cat and a dog. I'm just not worried about it. Those verbal skills will come when he is ready. Verbal corrections from a parent, however, could interfere with his ability to imagine and see beyond the page. There is no correct answer for creativity or a sense of humor. Imposing only one way of interpreting the images in a book would be a hindrance to his ability to discover things I am not capable of seeing.
When I thought about how I handled his "correct" answers, I felt just as uneasy. Something felt very wrong about saying "That's right" to each of his answers. It was as if I were conditioning my child for a response instead of enjoying a book together. It felt very much like conditional parenting, that destructive type of parenting I so want to avoid. I love my son unconditionally, whether or not he can name an image "correctly" with a word, sign, or sound. I am more concerned that he nurture a love of books and of learning. How I interpret a particular page is less important than the joy my son finds interacting with it. Yet I began to feel like I was offering a reward (my praise) through this question and answer method of book reading. I became concerned that he might focus more on the reward for his "correct" answers than on the book itself.
So I made some changes to our story time together. Very small, subtle changes that feel a lot better. Instead of asking "What's this?" on every page, I ask him "What do you see here?" or "Can you tell me what sound it makes?" The name game continues as it did before, but now my questions allow him the power to explore, imagine, and name as he wishes. I am no longer asking a question that may only have one correct answer. Instead, I am asking him to share with me how he interprets his book. I am asking him to tell me what he enjoys about the book. I refrain from determinant answers like "That's right". Instead I might say "Oh, yes, I see a dog! Woof woof." Occasionally I let a "You're right" slip in, but it's no longer my typical reply. When my son asks about an image ("Dat?"), I tell him what I see on the page so there is still room for instruction if he wants it. When he gives me a bizarre or unexpected answer, I allow the opportunity for him to teach me a thing or two ("Hey, it does kind of look like a ball!"). I marvel at his creative interpretation and feel grateul for these fresh eyes. After all, it's not a quiz. It's a bedtime story.