If you have young children, it's likely you know Max and Ruby, the sibling bunnies with their own classic book series (and TV show). Their creator, Rosemary Wells, has been creating endearing stories for kids for 30 years. Now, she has shifted gears and produced a beautiful and wisely written gem for parents: My Shining Star: Raising a Child Who Is Ready to Learn. Her firmly held belief is that success in school begins at home. In the book, Wells spells out 10 simple, yet profound, principles that parents can use to help their children prepare for school: respect, listening, patience, trust, work, honesty, time, reading, writing, and developing good habits. We spoke with Wells about her latest work.
Parent & Child: What inspired you to write this book?
Rosemary Wells: I've spent a lot of time talking with and listening to teachers, librarians, and reading specialists. What I've heard over and over is that our public education system is in enormous trouble. Many of our most talented teachers are dropping out. The problem they seem to be having is that they don't feel that parents communicate well with them, or are involved adequately in their children's education. Children are starting school unprepared to learn, meaning teachers are spending far too much time on socialization and discipline. It's a difficult plight for them.
P&C: The 10 qualities that you point to as pathways to success seem deceptively simple.
Wells: But it actually is that simple. It's hard to raise children, of course — it's all give, give, give. But when you break it down into the things kids need to learn in their earliest years, these very clear principles are pretty much it. This is what children need to get at home so that they are ready to learn when they get to school. The child has to be socialized, to be ready to respect and trust others. And he has to come from a home in which there is plenty of conversation, reading aloud, encouragement of writing and drawing, and positive interactions with adults. That's what makes a child curious, makes his brain work. That's how a child is able to develop critical-thinking skills, confidence, and independence.
P&C: Why is it important for kids to have this foundation — and what can throw it off track?
Wells: Without it, kids won't be able to compete with other children who are given every advantage and encouragement and are treated like little racehorses. Parents need to understand that their children need the tools to compete in the world, and education is the number one tool.
As for what hinders it, a lot of our popular culture is anti-adult, anti-intellectual, anti-learning. It can make the important things seem uncool. We need to encourage our children to play creatively. We need to get them out in the woods again, playing board games, throwing baseballs just for the fun of it, making little villages in their rooms out of cardboard.
P&C: Why is it so important for parents to read to their children?
Wells: When you sit down every day to read to a child, you are teaching a love of the story and of storytelling, a respect for the turning of pages, for books themselves. You are teaching a love of the printed word, of language. You're teaching them the love of ideas. You impart that a book is a source of joy.
And don't forget that reading is a great way to just be close to your child. Children need to hear their mothers' and fathers' voices. Kids who are read to are better listeners. This starts when they're babies. Of course, reading to infants can be a challenge, but all you're trying to do is to let your child hear the sound of your voice and associate that with turning pages and looking at pretty pictures. Yes, babies will chew up the books, or throw them, or toddle away, but they come back for more. They love it, because it's a very warm ritual.
P&C: What are the hallmarks of the best books for children?
Wells: Most important to my mind is, does the child want to hear it again? Good children's literature is written to be read 500 times. The best children's books are also ones parentswant to enjoy again and again. They are written well enough for parents to like and be amused by. Good children's literature is written with a very intelligent, special child in mind, and is not dumbed down or made overly cutesy.
You have to go with what your child wants to have read to him, too. Children are individuals and have their own tastes and interests. If your child picks out 14 books on bulldozers at the library, read them all. It's actually good for him to see that something he loves exists in books.
That said, if you're getting tired of reading about bulldozers or outer space, you can always try to add in something else, but overall it's good to go with your child's instincts. If you need suggestions, any children's librarian or good independent bookstore clerk should be able to help you. Also, if your library has story hour, try to go, especially if you're not comfortable with or accustomed to reading aloud. Watching a professional do it can help you see how much fun it can be. It shouldn't be intimidating.
P&C: Can you talk about some of the other principles in your book?
Wells: The book is about creating a home full of harmony. A child needs to learn basic things like respect, patience, empathy, responsibility, and how to listen. All of these things — the principles explained in the book, along with reading — get kids ready to learn in school. All of the principles are the basic ingredients in a moral, human life.
Really, you can't live well without these things. You can't live without being honest. You can't have a relationship with others unless you're patient, can listen and be respectful of others. A child who is not expected to do work around the house doesn't feel part of the world he lives in. A child who is not made to experience the consequences of his actions will never learn responsibility. All these things should be learned at home in the years before school.