Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Bon mots" and Bad Bears

When a five-year-old repeats the same phrase a hundred times, usually while jumping around the living room or repetitively opening and closing a door, it is not unkind nor is it stifling of his creativity to ask him to please, please, cut it out. I tell my own five-year-old, who has his own head-full of bon mots, to cut it out -- not only because bouncing and chanting and slamming can get on even the fondest mother's nerves, but because I truly believe this sort of thing can rot a child's brain.

I read this idea in one of Kant's critiques, long after I'd already lodged it in my mental library of firm motherly beliefs not based on any evidence (we all have these libraries). Kant was using children's bon mots as an analogy for some type of repetitive thinking by scientists, I think. Whether or not an eighteenth century philosopher's speculations on child development have any use today, I was glad to find that Kant thought the same thing I thought.

Repetition is good for children. It helps them learn to use their memories. We don't remember things until we are around three or four years old, because until then we haven't had the chance to repeat many experiences, nor can we articulate those experiences. Once we are fully verbal and can relate stories, our memory increases rapidly -- a five year old can remember almost everything that happened yesterday, because he repeats it out loud, in play, and in his head. However I don't think the slamming and chanting type of repetition does any good once a child is almost school aged and has an amazing grasp of language, nor does he benefit any longer from the repetitive nonsense word babbling (it's not usually fresh gibberish, but words they've made up and latched onto).

Just as I believe my sons own verbalizations should usually aim for some kind of communication (again this is not stifling* -- he's five and knows all the words!), I am at the point where I want the books we read (he doesn't read alone yet, even though I did at his age -- I blame phonics in the classroom) to have some kind of coherence and to give a kind of "early writing" push. Children learn to speak from hearing us speak. Do they learn to write from reading books? Or do they just write how they speak? (We adults write differently from how we speak. So I'm wondering if what we read as children has fed into our writing for a lifetime.) I don't know if it makes a difference, but I have found myself shying away from books that are full of ugly sentences or awkward wording, in the hopes that some good-sounding children's literature will lead to my son's future abilities to write his own good-sounding prose.

*I keep saying I'm not stifling my son because while I try to curb frantic outpours of baby babble, I don't correct his grammar (the linguists proved that ineffective anyway), and I don't discourage creative word use. He's great at forming funny plurals. He even back-formed the singular for "clothes" as "clo." So we call an individual piece of clothing a "clo." I think it's clever and cute (of course) and when I found out there's a clothing store in New York called UNIQLO, I thought it was even more hilarious. He arrived at the same back-formed word as some Japanese people trying to sell "clos" to Americans! He also does interesting things with past tenses that use vowel shifts. He intuitively knows which words are vowel shift or irregular past tense words (get - got, etc.), but when he comes across a new one he just throws a different vowel at it. Finally, he likes to imitate accents. He does an awesome British guy (he sounds like Sir Bedivere from The Holy Grail), and he goes really wild with his "Italian." I only mention all this because I've been accused of being a horrible parent because I sometimes speak to my child in the language of philosophy (rather than in baby talk? I don't know what people want).

Anyhow --

The Berenstain Bears are a pretty neutral series of books for me. They are not beautifully written, but they tell decent stories. However, Stan and Jan are sometimes guilty of a very ugly sentence construction that not only offends the ear, but makes reading comprehension difficult. They interrupt expository sentences to place huge, paragraph long modifiers in the middle of them. They also interrupt their characters' dialog to write action happening right in the middle of the bear's utterance. It is jarring, and it is confusing for an early reader. The child not only loses track of what is going on, but it is doubtful he can read well enough to get through the sentence when it becomes completely unpredictable like that. The worst part about all this, even though the stories are quite readable most of the way through, is that every single book starts with an interrupted sentence offense!

Since I am still reading aloud, I take care to read those nasty things in whatever cadence or with whatever timing makes them most understandable. Sometimes, it ain't easy. And I'm always praying my son doesn't bring home his first story from school starting with a page-long sentence like, "Mikey, a sandy haired boy with hazel eyes who owned a cat and lived down a sunny paved road in the south part of blah blah blah... wanted a balloon."

Another series of books that offends me regularly is "ValueTales." My favorite has to be "The Value of Fantasy," which is all about how Hans Christian Andersen sucked at life for a long time because all he did was fantasize. Even his imaginary friend the bookworm (all the famous folk in these books have imaginary friends) tells him to shape up and keep it real. So much for the value of fantasy. I have had these books since the mid-eighties, and remember reading them as a child. They do have some good historical info packaged for kid consumption. I mostly remember the pictures. The words are absolutely nothing to get excited about. Besides the ridiculous explanations for where all the imaginary friends come from, always followed by the disclaimer "he knew he was just imaginary," the wording of these stories is always awkward. A dude with psychology degrees wrote most of them. Or maybe he just found people in the street who happened to have taken a history class one time and said "Here, write this."

I am probably doing the wrong thing, but I find myself changing the words or word order as I read the values books, because what's there just ain't right! It is an exercise in quick thinking to read them aloud. They are too long for my son to memorize, so when he finally reads them on his own he won't be startled by different words on the page (the reason I wouldn't change the words of shorter books that are just as terrible -- kids do try to memorize word shapes and such as they're read to). My son also likes me to read the very serious back flaps of these books, where some historian has typed up a brief real-life bio of the book's subject. This is always a relief, to read some encyclopedic writing after forty pages of prose torture and ugly purple-brown seventies cartoon drawings.

What is even more of a relief is when my son picks out a Dr. Seuss book. I said repetition can be good, and I meant what I said! The repetition in Dr. Seuss is a healthy, metered kind, with fun variations. Kids can sometimes guess the end words of the lines, but not always. The made up words in Seuss serve to complete a rhyme, and they almost always either A) describe a thing or creature that needs a name (because it never existed till he drew it), or B) create a brilliant new word form or change the part of speech of a familiar word (i.e. "No one alive is youer than you!"). The nonsense is not nonsense for nonsense's sake. And the rhythm helps the reader keep reading, even through the bumpy parts. I can't, of course, remember exactly what books gave me a reading breakthrough as a child, but Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? was integral in teaching my younger sister.

I'm not ridding the shelves of any books (although we don't buy many new ones), as some of these books surely taught me to read. My mother had the foresight to hold onto them once I moved onto hobbits and Hitchcock, and then scarlet letters and beyond. But I can't help but wonder at some of the bad writing, irresponsibly confusing wording, and general lack of concern for the early reader's probable difficulty with these tot texts. As for reading on his own, we are still in the Go Dogs, Go! stage. So we will cross the Berenstain bridge when we get there, and hope we don't get stuck in the middle of it while Stan and Jan spend an hour describing the sunny dirt road for the hundred-and-fifteenth time, right smack in the middle of a sentence.

A well rounded child, whose mother happens to prefer readable books.


  1. Now you're going to have me on the lookout for well written kid books to send you. I used to love those damn bears and I never thought about them having an effect on future writing patterns. Now I'll have to make sure that I don't do that.

  2. As a librarian, there are many books I dislike, but tolerate. While the Berenstain bears are not favorites of mine, but this is mainly because they seem bland and a bit "old fashioned" minus charm.
    There are FAR worse books that offend many with grammar, sentence structure and language. When they get older Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants seem to have parents gritting their teeth as they begrudgingly ask if their child should be reading this.
    As a rule, I don't really feel that any book should be taken AWAY from a child who wants to read it (unless it is an 8 year old who wants to read a book that I know has a 75 page S&M scene in it. Yes, this has happened.) We librarians are ALL about the reading for personal pleasure thing. But it IS very important for the parent to enforce the correct way to speak if a child begins to let Junie B's language slip into their own dialogue.
    Anyway, I totally give you the thumbs up for stopping him from jumping around and chanting. If it doesn't rot his own brain, I can attest that it rots the brains of those around him. Too many parents where I am would prefer not to tell their child to stop and let a stranger do it.


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.