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Once Your Kid Learns to Read, Everything Changes

Between Kindergarten and first grade this year, my son went from picking out a handful of words like "pet" and "man" to reading a 20-page chapter book all by himself. As a writer, watching this process is no less magnificent to me than if he were turning lead to gold. 40 years old myself, I still remember my own magical day in first grade when those disparate letters suddenly arranged themselves into sentences, when I knew exactly what Dick and Jane were up to, and the world of reading opened up to me with epic power.

I've burst into tears on more than a few occasions when my son spelled "monstr," read me "Green Eggs and Ham," or held up my favorite childhood book saying, "What's 'The Secret Garden 'about?"

But it wasn't long before this joy gave way to alarm. The first time my son looked over my shoulder and read aloud "He won't stop talking at me," which I'd just texted about him to a good friend, guilt made a stealthy dash through me. Forget spelling out words like "s-h-o-t-s" and "b-a-t-h" with my husband, I couldn't even text in private.

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This extended to many more areas I had not considered:

Foul graffiti could no longer be explained away as vandalism. "Why would somebody write the F word at my park, Mama?" he asked in genuine concern one day. "I think they must have been trying to tell someone they were stuck," I lied badly.

That scrolling news headline bar at the bottom of TVs in a surprising number of places like doctor's offices, gyms and even gas stations has become an object of terror. I'm not ready for my child's head to be full of contagious disease scares and tragic plane crashes—he has enough anxiety about what lurks in the closet and the potential loss of his beloved kitties one day.

Reading is like having a key that fits any lock in the world.

I hadn't thought to put away my daily journal, either, since it had never interested him before except as an occasional place to draw with crayons. But when I came into my office to find him peering into its pages, he looked up and said, "Mom, why did you write that 'Sometimes being a mom is hard work?'" The journals I've kept since I was 8 years old, where I routinely vent my frustrations and gripes, had to go back up into the highest shelf in my office closet.

His reading talents also mean no more Facebook in eyeshot. Some of my friends, love them as I do, have a similarly dark or irreverent taste in comedy, and there's no telling when a random commenter will pull out an F-bomb.

But the benefits of my son reading vastly outweighs these few silly changes. We are lucky to live just a block away from our local public library, a relatively new and expanded facility with a colorful, comfy children's section designed for dragging out stacks of books and reading for hours.

"Mom, did you know about all this science?" he asked in a tone that suggested maybe I'd been keeping it from him. He pointed to an image of otherworldly ice crystals under magnification in a book about weather.

"I knew about it, but even I'm learning something with you," I admitted. "Reading is like having a key that fits any lock in the world." It made me think: How often do I bother to go and crack a book about a subject I know little about? Rarely. Now, helping my son expand his knowledge is widening my mind, too.

My white son can learn what it's like to be a person of color, a girl, from a different historical period, culture or even world.

Inside these books my son puts into practice the adage that knowledge is power. There's something different about knowledge you gain from your own investigation versus that which is imparted in a school setting. I remember it from my own childhood, how my intellectual coffers filled steadily as I devoured literature about people and places either vastly different from me or comfortingly similar.

What's more, I can't think of a better way to teach empathy and understanding than for your child to read literature by and about people with differences. My white son can learn what it's like to be a person of color, a girl, from a different historical period, culture or even world. He can travel the infinitely branching forks of imagination to reach important conclusions, become a person of integrity and kindness and learn to care for the planet and world he is inheriting in worsening condition.

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What I've learned as my son has taken up reading is that he's no longer just the open sponge I pour my knowledge into, but a partner in learning, teaching me to see the world through his eyes.

Image via Twenty20/ts95bmw

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