If you are a parent, and have an active, participatory relationship with your young child, then you likely read anywhere from 2 to 20 books a day. I am not talking the new James Patterson or even that book about Cleopatra everyone is pushing on you. No, you are likely reading classic literature like Hop on Pop and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Or maybe you are going for more contemporary fare, such as Lego Star Wars and Olivia. Either way, the parental imperative is to read, read, and read some more to your children – presumably until they tire of you as the narrator and learn how to read themselves. This position, as narrator of the world’s more expressive forms of literature, is an esteemed position, and one that (even though it may seem to be endless) only goes on for a few years.
But many parents greatly miss out on this time because, as a childhood friend said of his father, they are “detained.” What I am talking about are parents in prison (a concept every child fears, and every parent dreads). Still, with a growing domestic prison population (1 out of every 142 Americans is now actually in prison, 1 out of every 32 of us is either in prison or on parole from prison) many parents are absent in their children’s day-to-day lives. This means not showing up for birthday parties, not being there when they are frightened or unsure, and not having the luxury of sitting down and reading to their children. Now the last one may seem somewhat trivial compared to basically missing out on the whole package of parenting, but you cannot underestimate the power and intimacy of reading to a child, especially when it is your child.
While there are an existing number of inspired, and inspiring, programs throughout the country which help facilitate incarcerated mothers to be closer and more involved in the lives of their children, incarcerated fathers have been somewhat left out in the cold. A recent New York Times story profiling an inspirational reading program set at Rikers Island Prison in New York City, reveals that some fathers on the “inside” are being given a chance to finally read to the sons and daughters that they had left behind.
A program, bundled with a 5-week literacy course, appropriately called “Daddy and Me” gives incarcerated fathers a chance to record themselves onto CD reading popular children’s books and have those recordings sent on to their children. It was the first time such a program had been tried at Rikers, though there have been many similar efforts, most focusing on female inmates in prisons across the country, since at least 1996. Financed by a literacy grant and run by Nick Higgins, supervising librarian at the New York Public Library’s correctional services program, this stab at familial bonding via literacy is moving two remote populations (jailed fathers and their fatherless children) more closely together. On the first day, Mr. Higgins (as he revealed to the New York Times) told the inmates, “Our objective is to hopefully change the attitude that some of you might have about reading to children, that reading is Mom’s job.” The program is showing signs of great success with many fathers on the inside, eager to make a contribution to their children’s lives through literature, and many of their children the proud recipients of their father’s time and devotion in the form of a custom audio book.
While you could say this hardly makes up for an absent parent likely “detained” for misdeeds and a history of bad behavior, this, if anything, might be one small thing that keeps both the population on the inside, as well as their children, a little more compassionate and a little more human.
Have you made the connection between the act of reading to your children and a developing intimacy? Do you think a program like this could, and will, make a difference? Do you feel it could be taken to the next level (prison Skype anyone?) or expanded upon? What single thing do you think all parents and children need to share in order to feel connection?