Lying in bed, my 10-year-old son was all showered and jammied-up. It was about 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. He had his arms folded across his chest and a scowl on his little, round face.
"I hate reading," he announced. "I'm never reading anything again."
"Sorry to hear that," I said. "You are going to have a tough life, then."
"No, I won't," he snapped. "I'm good at other stuff. I'll just do math."
"OK, then," I said. "Why don't you scoot your long-division-doing butt on the other side of the bed, and I'll read to you."
With kids, you can't always take things at face value. What was really bugging my son was not that he hates reading, but that he was behind on a book report. In other words, he was stressing.
His reading homework was due in two days and he still had about 60 pages of his book to go. It was a book about an 11-year-old boy named Hobie and his dog, Duke, who had been loaned to the military in World War II as a sentry animal. Hobie's Dad was serving in Europe, so the boy donated his dog to the war cause.
I cracked open the book, which is aptly titled "Duke," removed the bookmark and cleared my throat. Then I glanced over to see if my son was paying attention. Instead, he was holding pillow over his face.
"Toss the pillow, son," I said. "You don't have to read tonight, but you DO have to listen."
From observing my wife and son reading together, I knew the trick was to make it more of a conversation than a chore. Despite his protestations about reading, my son is a naturally inquisitive child. I knew that, once he let down his guard, he would open up.
At one point in the book, one of the children sings the mid-20th century song, "How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?" I broke into an full-throated rendition of the song — complete with vibrato — as if I was Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."
My son looked as me as if I had just coughed up a crocodile.
"What the heck?" he said. "You actually know that song?"
"Yep, I sure do," I answered.
A few pages later, one of the characters in the book was driving a DeSoto. My son, a car nut, tapped me on the elbow.
"Daddy," he said, "what was a DeSoto? Was it some kind of Plymouth?"
"Good guess," I said. "It was made by Chrysler, but it was a separate model, not a Plymouth. They stopped making them back in the 1960s. My family used to have one when I was little. "
"Oh," he said.
We read some more and learned that families in the 1940s had iceboxes in their kitchens. My son's hand flew up immediately.
"What's an icebox, Daddy?" he asked.
"I'm so glad you asked," I said. "You know that piece of wooden furniture by the back door that we keep shoes in, the one with the door on the top and the door on the side?"
"Uh-huh,'" he said.
"Well, that's an antique icebox that belonged to my grandparents. That was back before they had refrigerators. They would put a big block of ice in the top and food on the shelf in the middle. The ice would keep the food cold, so it acted like a fridge."
I explained that an ice truck came around to the house to make deliveries every few days, much like the UPS trucks comes to our house a couple of times a week.
"Daddy, I can read a few pages now," my son volunteered.
By the time we finished reading together, we had polished off about 40 pages.
"That's almost a quarter of the book," my son said.
"Yep," I said, "way to use those math skills, son."
With that, he jumped up, brushed his teeth, then hopped back in bed.
"I love you, Daddy," he said, clearly more lighthearted than he'd been an hour before.
"I love you, too, Bobadoo," I said, kissing him on the forehead and pulling up the covers.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.