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Celeste Ng Headshot

Battle Hymn of the Bookworm Mother

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Within twenty-four hours of Amy Chua's piece appearing in the Wall Street Journal, no fewer than six people had brought the article to my attention. I completely see why: I myself was once an American-born Chinese kid pressured to excel by my parents. On top of that, I'm also a new mother just beginning to consider how I'll raise my son.

Let me state for the record: I have no intention of becoming a tiger mother. (For those have no idea what a "tiger mother" is, here's a link to Chua's defense of her book and a roundup of responses to the excerpt. And is there space for me under that rock?)

But as I contemplate my son's future -- all I hope he'll be and do and achieve -- I have to admit there's one thing that might wake my inner tiger. If he wants to be a football player? I'll dread his injuries, but I'll buy him a helmet. If he wants to be an interpretive dancer? I'll prepare an apartment in the basement for him, but I'll be at his recitals. Short of the dishonest, the illegal, and the cruel, there's only one thing my son could do that would really disappoint me: not liking reading.

If genes have any influence over personality, I don't have to worry. My husband's parents were both English teachers for decades. My own parents bought me books as treats; our house had books in every room, not just on shelves but splayed on the coffee table, stacked on nightstands, misplaced behind the cushions of the couch. Now that I'm grown up, not much has changed. During our last move, from Michigan to Massachusetts, the movers looked up from packing the seventeenth box of books and asked me, in complete seriousness, if I actually NEEDED all of these books. (I told them yes.)

And if nurture outweighs nature, all signs point to "reader" as well. Before my son was even born, he already had two shelves of books. Our baby registry contained 57 items, 26 of which were books. From birth, we've been reading him Are You My Mother? and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and, okay, snippets from whatever we happen to be reading. (All infants like Time magazine and Daily Kos, right?)

But more often than not, my son's attention wanders around page 4. He wriggles through the finer points of Go, Dog. Go! Sometimes, we call it quits with Goodnight, Moon well before "Goodnight mush." So I worry. True, he's only four months old. But I keep wondering: What if my son doesn't like to read?

It's not just because I'm a writer -- though that's part of it. And it's not just because our family is full of voracious bookworms. Of course I want to be able to share what I do -- and what I love -- with my child. But there's more: I am suspicious of people who don't like to read, just as I'm suspicious of people who don't like chocolate, or children, or puns.

Here's why: A love of reading shows curiosity about the world and how it works, whether you're reading a science journal or a novel or a history book. A love of reading shows empathy, the desire to understand how others live or act or might act -- and why. And a love of reading lets you connect with other minds across space and time, exploring similar passions and finding new ones. Curiosity, empathy, passion -- these are all qualities I want my son to have. They'll help him succeed later in life, and they'll also make him a better, more interesting person.

So no matter what he ultimately ends up doing, I hope my son turns out to be a reader. And I'll do all I can to help him become one. I won't threaten to burn his toys, or bar him from playdates. But I'll buy him books as treats. I'll keep on reading to him, whatever he likes, every day, every year. I won't complain if he leaves books in every room: not just on shelves, but on the coffee table, on his nightstand, in the sofa cushions. A tiger mother I may not be. But as a bookworm mother, I'm setting my son up for success better than any tiger mother could.