Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The "Positively-Negative Parenting" Phenomenon: Part 1

I've been a Young Adult Librarian for more than five years now and have noticed a concerning trend that I'm calling the "Positively-Negative Parenting" Phenomenon.

Every parent wants their children to read.  Reading goes hand in hand with education and all parents want their children to succeed in school, get educated and acquire the tools they need to do well in life. To that end, parents encourage children to read.  Which is a wonderful goal.  But what happens when parents sabotage their childrens' literary efforts without realizing the damage being committed.  What happens when the parent is "positively-negative"?

The Wake-Up Call
(Names in this story have been changed to protect customer identities.)
Last week, I had a mother, Rose, and her teenage daughter, Sasha, come to the reference desk.  The first words out of the mother's mouth was about how her daughter didn't like to read.  The mother had tried giving her daughter all kinds of books to read and she didn't like any of them.  Therefore Sasha didn't like to read.  She was a smart girl, her mother assured me, Sasha just didn't like to read.

I started talking to Sasha, asking the normal librarian questions to try and narrow down a genre or title that might appeal to her. (i.e. "What kind of TV shows/movies do you like?  What kind of video games? etc.)  After discovering that Sasha enjoyed the new Teen Wolf show on MTV as well as Vampire Diaries on CW, I took her into our YA Area to see what titles were actually on the shelf that might have appeal.  While I was talking to Sasha, Rose often interjected - she had given Sasha Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, but Sasha didn't read it.

Now, my style of "lets find book suggestions" goes something like this: I walk around my YA Area with the teen pulling books off the shelf for the teen to look over.  By the time we finish walking the area I will have pulled between five and ten possible titles.  I then leave the teen to peruse the selections to see if any have appeal (there is usually at least one title in the stack that the teen picks up).  As we walked around the section I executed my usual process, talking to Sasha, pulling titles off the shelf, giving a brief description and letting her make a split-second decision to take another look at the title or move on to the next.  As we did this, Rose continued to make comments about how she had given her daughter this title or that title that Sasha wouldn't read.

My wake-up call came when I pulled Andrea Cremer's Nightshade off the shelf for Sasha to consider.  Sasha showed intense interest as I described the plot and actually reached out to take the book, when her mother grabbed the book out of my hand and told me that there was no way her daughter would read that book.  It was too long.  Now, Nightshade is a little over 450 pages in length, so it isn't a skinny read, but Sasha had showed interest.  Inside, I was outraged; how dare Rose take away a book that her daughter actually expressed interest in!  I managed to keep an outer cool and simply took the book back from Rose and handed to Sasha saying, "If she likes it, she will read it." After pulling several more titles I left Sasha (and her mother) in the YA Area to take a look through the books we'd pulled as possible titles of interest.

Several minutes later I noticed Sasha walking out with a book tucked under her arm.  Nightshade was the book she picked.

The Realization
As I thought over my encounter with Sasha and Rose, I realized that Rose's behavior, which I have dubbed "positively-negative parenting" was something that I'd seen over and over again.  This phenomenon is when a parent, with the best intentions, tries to encourage their teen to read, but in the process constantly references failed former attempts at reading.  One minute the parent is encouraging reading then, the next minute, the parent is bringing to mind failure, humiliation and disappointment in their teen.  While I am not a psychologist, I cannot help but wonder what kind of negative impact this kind of parenting has on teen readers.  It is an issue I plan to explore.

Now, I don't know if Sasha will make it through that book.  She may decide it isn't for her.  I told her that she couldn't hurt my feelings by telling me she didn't like a book.  If I know what she doesn't like I have a better chance of finding something she does like.  All I asked of her was that she make a real effort to read the book.  (That's one of the main purposes of YA Librarianship, to foster a love of reading in teens.)  I don't care what a teen reads as long as they are reading.

Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?  I'd love to hear how you address it. 


  1. I've noticed the same thing at my branch. Some times half the battle is talking the parent into the books. I have also had to talk the parent into letting the teen check out more then one book, so if they don't like one, they have a back-up ready to go. I find cutting the parent out of the conversation as much as possible is the only way to go. Otherwise they answer for the teen and, well honestly, I'm not helping the parent find a book, am I.

  2. I often have parents come in and say that a teen doesn't like to read to begin our interaction, but I don't recall a parent being as persistent as the one you describe here. I think focusing on the negative is damaging and shameful no matter how it is presented or what the topic is. As a mom and a librarian, I sometimes struggle with what my tween chooses to read but bite my tongue because I don't want to make reading a negative experience. And, most importantly, what my daughter chooses to read is about what she likes - that is so hard for many parents I find, letting their teen be their own person and find their own way in this world. I try and make sure a teen walks out with a handful of titles if possible reminding them that if they don't like 1 they can set it aside and try a new one.

  3. From time to time I also run across these demeaning, control-freak parents. They try to attend my teens-only programs in addition to dictating what they want their children to read or not read. I wish my teen area could be "teens-only", too. I tell these parents that they need to allow their children to make some choices on their own, which will help the teens to grow up. I say that their children are trying to be independent, and allowing them to function on their own in a safe place like a library will be good for them. I've also found that it's impossible to change anyone. The parents that I've known here for 9 years are still practicing the same kind of parenting after all those years. These control-freak/demeaning parents will probably always remain being so, even when the child is 40 years old. In any case, I make the attempt, like everyone who has posted here, to service the teens. Hopefully what we do will give the child a little courage to fight the battles with his parents.

  4. I think the mom was probably trying to overcompensate for her own failure to engage her daughter in reading, almost hoping that you would also fail to get the teen to read so that the mom can say "It wasn't just me!" I think it's difficult to get any kid to read a book their mom picks out for them, even if the teen IS a reader...

  5. I see it with parents. Once had a great conversation on a plane with a 16 yr old kid who didn't like to read and with his dad. The kid had just never found a book he liked but he was forced to finish every book he started. Because they were a captive audience, I was able to convince them, in the next two hours in the sky, that when reading for pleasure it is ok to stop a book and go on to another one which is why you should always take more than one.
    There is a similar issue in elementary schools with kids being forced to find "just right books" and read on their level. Some teachers won't let kids take out books they think are too challenging and with good readers, they won't let the kids read what their friends are reading because the books are below their lever, paying no attention to interest level and intended audience.
    Seems like readacide is pervasive in our culture.

  6. I love your phrase "positively negative", and I hate that I have too many at my library. I deal with it just like you and the folks who commented above me: I talk to the teen. I acknowledge the parent, of course, but I focus my attention on the young person and try to glean information from them. (Because mom/dad doesn't know best...despite what they want to think.)
    We will never be free of these parents, but if we stay calm (SO difficult sometimes!) and professional, yet attentive to the teen, we will succeed.