Six years ago, at her preschool graduation ceremony, my daughter Hannah was asked what she wanted to become when she grew up. She thought for a second, smiled, and said, “I want to be a writer, like my daddy. I had never thought of myself as a writer, but rather as an investor who writes. Hannah didn’t know the difference. When my kids see me work, I’m either reading or staring at my laptop.
This year was transformative for Hannah. In addition to becoming Bat Mitzvah (read my speech to her here) she fell in love with reading. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone been so obsessed with reading. I remember that it started in late spring. She read a book or two. To encourage her to read I volunteered to pay her $10 per book read. For the next few months she read nonstop. I was slightly concerned that she was gulping books for money and not for the pleasure of reading. However, a few months and $120 later she came to me and said she didn’t need to get paid to read. She felt guilty because I was buying the books and paying her. I was glad she had made that decision. But I have never seen anyone – really, anyone – so engrossed in reading. All she thinks about is what book she’ll read next.
My wife and I don’t set any limits how much money she can spend on books. When Hannah wants a book, she looks first in Overdrive (a digital library). If it isn’t available there, she buys it on Kindle or we go to Barnes & Noble. Our trips to Barnes & Noble are my favorite part of her reading addiction. I am so glad that Barnes & Noble stores are still around, as we go there almost once a week now.
Our only rule is that Hannah can buy just one book at a time – that’s what keeps us going book shopping. At Barnes & Noble we get something from Starbucks. I get a tea or coffee; she gets a pastry or sugary drink. Hannah grabs a book she wants to buy, and we both sit in comfortable armchairs, surrounded by books and Starbucks’ aroma, and read for hours. This is our special time.
Sometimes on Fridays, when I pick both of my girls up from school, I take Hannah and her almost-five-year-old sister, Mia Sarah, to the B&N. It used to be a bookstore with a Starbucks in it. Post-Amazon and the digital apocalypse, it turned into a Starbucks that sells books and toys. I hadn’t noticed how many toys they carry until I visited it with Mia Sarah. On our first visit she wanted me to buy her toys. She and I made a deal: We only go Barnes & Noble to buy books (and Starbuck’s cake pops). Now, even before we walk into the store, she says, “Dad, yes, I know we only buy books here.”
While Hannah is slobbering all over her teen book’s section, Mia Sarah and I are searching for her book in the kids’ section. My hope is that being close to books, having a positive experience associated with them, will encourage Mia Sarah to become a reader just like her older sister. Also, we’re creating our little tradition – going to bookstores.
Reading has had an interesting side effect on Hannah: Over the last few months she has started writing stories. Her writing is very colorful, highly descriptive; her stories are dramatic, and the characters in them are very dark (Freud would have a great field day with her characters). I notice that Hannah is now reading to write. This happened to me when I started writing: I started reading for two people, for the reader and for the writer in me. As a reader you are focused just on the content, but as a writer you start paying attention to how this content is packaged and delivered. You start paying attention to sentence structure, to author’s voice, and the list goes on.
My two older kids have expressed little interest in investing, which makes me just slightly sad – it would have been awesome to research stocks together. Hannah and I had a conversation about that recently. Her mother wants her to become what every Jewish mother wants her offspring to become – a doctor. I told Hannah, “Don’t try to please us in your career choice; the only person you want to please is yourself. We’ll support whatever choice you make. We just want you to be happy, and if you are happy we’ll be happy with you.”
This brings me to a question I get asked often by my readers: How do I get my kids to listen to classical music? I know this is not where you thought this piece was going – I am anything but an authority on parenting. I attended the same university of trial and error as every other parent. But I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot as classical music has gradually taken a larger and larger role in my life. It is an incredible world, and I want my kids to be part of it.
I found that my kids, especially when they were young, would go to great lengths to spend time with me; and just like all kids, they love sweets. When I take kids to classical music concerts we make part of the trip about food, be it Dairy Queen, burgers and fries, or cookies during intermission.
I still remember my father taking me to see Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor when I was 11 years old. I sat through the opera without too much fidgeting. And I still remember two things: a short fragment from the aria of Prince Igor – “Oh, give me, give me freedom so I can repay for my shame” – and, what is even more memorable, the dessert cake my father bought me during intermission. I waited patiently for intermission, because I was promised a cake. This was more than thirty years ago. Trip to the opera or to the symphony were a special experience and thus were accompanied by desserts.
Falling in love with classical music is a process. The music is not always easy to “understand”; it requires “work”– those are words my father used to describe classical music. Classical music – I am generalizing here – is multilayered and complex; thus it requires the listener to listen multiple times before it clicks. Listening to something you don’t yet appreciate (“understand”) is not necessarily fun; it may be “work.”
However, my parents listened to classical music at home, in addition to taking me and my brothers to concerts. They exposed us to the music, and that is all you can do as a parent. When I heard this music later in life, it had already been deposited somewhere deep in the memory bank of my childhood; so I was not hearing it for the first time. My kids and I listen to classical music at home and in the car going to and from school. At times we watch YouTube videos together.
Mia Sarah was exposed to classical music through watching cartoons like Little Einsteins. A few days ago she came to me and said, “Dad, what is this music – ta da da da daaa?” She was singing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I fired it up on YouTube, she sat patiently on my knees, and we even conducted together. She lasted about seven minutes, which was plenty.
Another question I get asked by readers is what pieces to use to introduce kids to classical music and opera. The following is anything but an exhaustive list, and I am not even sure it’s the right list, but it’s what comes to mind today.
Sergey Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Variation 18
Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude
Clair de Lune by Debussy
The Swan, by Camille Saint-Saens
The flower duet from Bizet’s Carmen
Barcarolle by Offenbach, from The Tales of Hoffmann
Leoncavallo’s “Vesti La Giubba” from Pagliacci
Caruso as sung by Pavarotti – this is not an opera, but it shows that opera singers don’t have be intimidating.
Barcelona, by Montserrat Caballe and Freddie Mercury