When I was a kid, my sister read to me all of the time. Seldom did a day go by without me sitting in her lap, enthralled by “Curious George” or “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” One of my favorites was “The Monster at the End of this Book.” It’s a story about Grover — the lovable neurotic from Sesame Street — who panics when he sees on the title page that there is a monster at the end of the book. In a series of increasingly desperate pleas to the readers, Grover begs us not to read any further. His paranoid logic is impeccable — if we do not turn pages, we indeed cannot reach the end of the book where the monster is.
But alas, young readers are stubborn and mischievous. Pages are turned, the end inches near and poor Grover goes into full-blown hysteria. At one point he even builds a brick wall across the page to stop us, and yet readers can smash that wall with a mere flip of the page corner. On the penultimate page, Grover is in a state of psychic collapse. The dreaded monster is only one turn away, and the furry blue Muppet grovels for mercy.
But then comes the twist. As it turns out, Grover himself is the monster at the end of the book. There was no need for panic after all, and calm is restored to Sesame Street. As Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
My sister read that book and many othersto me over and over. Even before I could read by myself, I could tell if she missed a single word, and I would correct her. Now, I’m not tooting my own precocious horn here; many children memorize their favorite books. But there was more to the pleasure than that. Whether it was my sister or my parents or anyone else reading, I loved the warmth and closeness of the moment. Books enable bonding — the feeling that child and reader are on an adventure together.
And there’s no question that this immersion in stories gave me a head start in school (and, for that matter, in my career). Studies repeatedly show that reading to children is one of the most beneficial things parents can do. Next to feeding them and whatnot.
Hence my surprise this past May when I heard that a couple of British philosophers had questioned the practice. Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse have been studying stable families and wringing their hands over the ways in which such families might confer unfair advantages to their children. Their thinking goes like this: Not all children are blessed with the same family situations. Some parents have more money than others, and some are more nurturing than others. Thus they conclude that the children of less wealthy or less nurturing homes are at a disadvantage in life. And they worry that reading to children makes the advantage gap worse.
Swift and Brighouse briefly consider forbidding parents to read to their children, though mercifully they decide against it. But an interview reveals their alarming fantasy about leveling the playing field by dictating habits for families. I quote, “What we realized we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairness for other people’s children.”
It gets worse. Following Plato’s lead, these two scholars briefly flirt with the idea of abolishing the family altogether as a way to achieve social justice, though they decide that perhaps such a step would not work. If they had their way, Swift and Brighouse would certainly abolish private schools in the name of fairness for those who cannot afford them. At the very least, the radical philosophers conclude, if parents insist on reading to their children, they should occasionally think about what they are doing to other children and should feel guilty.
These philosophers are of course welcome to their views, but I reject this kind of thinking. It’s noble to be concerned about the disadvantages of others, and even nobler to do something about them. But isn’t the obvious solution to encourage more people to read to their children? Why even consider taking this advantage away from some in order to match the deprivation of others? If “reading to children” is a scarce resource — with only so much of it to go around — why not work to change that? Why talk of rationing?
My family loved reading to me. I have loved reading to my nieces and nephews. Please read to the children in your life. Support the White County Literacy Council and other efforts to help parents who struggle with reading. Together, we may just discover that the monster at the end of the book is not Grover, but any worldview that threatens to take the joy from our bedtime stories in the name of social engineering.