Family Dynamics at the Bookstore


Josie Leavitt - August 25, 2009

Family dynamics can be seen every day at the bookstore. Some of it is downright scary, but more often than not, it’s charming. Summer tends to bring the *entire* family, not just one parent and a child. I’m talking both grandparents, sometimes all four grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and everyone in between.

When a large family comes in, I brace myself, for the increased noise, the number of folks all needing recommendations at the same time and the interplay with family that can be helpful for a sale, or be detrimental. We had a large family in the store yesterday. Two grandmas, one mom, several all-girl cousins and an aunt. They were a model family. They were from upstate New York and South Carolina.

Polite to a fault, the eldest cousin (about fourteen) came up to me and asked,"Will this book stay with me? Will I get scared?" She was looking at Norma Fox Mazer’s The Missing Girl. Yes and yes, I told her. And she seemed satisfied with her choice.  The younger sister chimed in, "Lenore likes to get scared by real things in books, not monsters." Well, there you go. The sister’s banter showed a close relationship revealed in books as each could say what the last book was the other liked and didn’t like. Each child brought the books over to each grandma and book-talked them a little. I was charmed as Grandma nodded and smiled at each girl, happy they were excited about reading.

Not every family is so amiable. One thing I see over and over again is when siblings come in together and the parent said, quite pointedly, "He’s not a reader." Ouch. What a brilliant way to make sure he never becomes a reader. In this situation, I do my best to separate the child from the parent in the hopes that the distance will allow the child to talk about what he finds challenging about reading. I always say to parents that there’s no such thing as a non-reader, the kids just haven’t found the right book.

I often find it’s best to get the parents out of the conversation with kids older than eight. They can articulate what they liked, what they’re in the mood for, etc. Often parents speak too fast to fill the silence of a thoughtful child.  Patience is the key for most kids — and adults for that matter — in finding the right book.

Another family dynamic I don’t enjoy is scolding in the store. I am never sure what to do, even after thirteen years. We once had a very harried mom with four toddlers all under five in the store. One boy hit the other and the mom shook his little arm very hard and said,"Stop hitting." I was dumbstruck by the mixed message.

Then there are the moms who can just ignore a child practically shouting,"MOM, MOM, MOM." Their ability to carry on a conversation while a toddler is just trying to show them something is wonder to me. How can they even hear themselves think with this little person so desperate for her to not be talking to anyone but him? I call these parents the "distracteds." They tend to not give anyone their full attention, probably because there are so many competing for their attention that they’ve just shut down a little. I marvel that these women can get as much done as they do.

We seemed to be blessed with siblings who really get along. We have a family in town who are voracious readers. The older girl and her brother bike in together and she pays for all the books if he carries them home in his backpack. They love this arrangement, and so do we. Although once I had to stop him from biking home with all the books. He is little and the backpack looked too full to be safe on a bike.

Families who share books delight me. Often I’ll recommend a book to a child only to be told, "My sister has that." Well, go borrow it and save your money, I’ll say. The parents often look at me like I’m crazy, sending a sale away. But, if it’s the perfect book, I want the child to read it. If it happens to be a shelf at home, well, I’m fine with that.

My favorite family exchange is when one sibling comes up short for their books and the other sibling just chips in the difference without being asked or asking for something in return. It’s a nice reminder that it’s the small gestures that can be the most meaningful.

17 thoughts on “Family Dynamics at the Bookstore

  1. Anon Bookseller

    Some of us post anonymously because our employers prohibit and/or monitor internet postings. Having said that, screaming children in a bookstore can kill sales. I’ve had customers just walk out because of parents who cannot/will not control their children. Why should parents and children be exempt from the rules of civility?

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  2. Melissa Posten

    I love anonymous commenters! People who hide their real identities are my favorite. If you are a parent who is bringing your child into a bookstore and very pointedly saying, in public, to a bookseller, that your child is not a reader – you are helping to ensure that they never will be. Period.

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  3. jessica wilson

    oh how i miss those family dynamics. whenever a parent came in with their child and the class book list, i would immediately place my attention on the list and the child to see what he or she liked. engaging a young one in conversation about themselves when they imagined a book would be picked out for them was always a delight. to see their faces light up when they spoke. aack! i miss it!

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  4. an avid reader

    When our son was young my husband devised a “test” for the library and the bookstore…if our little guy could read and understand the first page of the book he picked out, he could take it out or buy it. Seems a simple thing, but it always works – even now that he’s 14! It prevented a lot of arguments and meaningless debates when looking at books and was a rule our son always understood.

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  5. Robert McCarty

    I’m quoting you — “There is no such thing as a non-reader, the kids just haven’t found the right book” — on our Barking Planet blog this week. I totally agree with you. Robert

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  6. Julianne Daggett

    It’s not Elizabeth juding people its what they actually say, parents really, really do discourage boys from reading, I’ve seen it and heard it in stores. I’m sure a lot of people do too. Many parents believe the sterotype that boys don’t like and don’t want to read, they’ll encourage thier daughters to read, but because of the sterotype they’ll tell their sons ‘oh you’re a boy and you want to be an athlete, you hate books because you’re a boy and because you’re a boy I won’t buy you any books because boys don’t like reading and don’t want to read. Because of this discourageing sterotyping by parents boys don’t read and it feeds on itself and they eventually stop reading because their told they don’t like reading and it feeds into the boy non-reading epidemic because parents believe sterotypes instead of letting their children be themselves.

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  7. ThirdAnon

    So their behavior is not allowed to be commented upon, lest it sound like a judgment? That’s silly. There are bad days (we’ve all had ’em) and good days, but even on a bad day I would never say, in front of my kid, “He’s not a reader.” That’s hurtful, embarrassing, and just plain not nice. By my reacting that way, is that “judging”? So be it then.

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  8. Waverly

    Wanted to respond to Julianne because it brought back memories. My sister and I were close in age and got most of our books from the library. We always got 10 (the maximum) at a time. I was not “allowed” by her to read ANY of her books until AFTER she read them. I felt the same way. Looking back I realize this was one way to stake out our own territory as we shared a room, were dressed alike, etc. This could go too far, though. We had one aunt who always sent two copies of the same book every Christmas, one for me, and one for my sister. We found this odd.

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  9. Anotheranon

    Some people just have a bad day. If they were such bad parents, or caregivers, they wouldn’t be taking the children to a bookstore in the first place. Believe me, you’d see a lot worse parental behavior in other venues!

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  10. shelftalker elizabeth

    Hi, Anon. I think people’s behavior is noticed everywhere they go, not just parents. Some behaviors are more noticeable than others, and in a children’s bookstore, it’s pretty hard not to notice behavior that clearly discourages reading. It doesn’t have to be a parent doing the discouraging, but because parents usually are the ones accompanying the kids, theirs is the behavior that stands out.

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  11. aishwarya

    I’ve seen a lot of the sort of parents H.A describes as well. While I’m sure they know their kids better than I do, it’s incredibly depressing to see a child picking up interesting, challenging books but being constantly shut down by the adults who are there with her.

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  12. Julianne Daggett

    I have a sister and we share about the same tastes in books when we were younger (not anymore though). And when we were younger we wanted things of our own. In other words we refused to share everything. We had the same barbie dolls, the same rollar blades, the same books, and we refused to share them because when your a child you have to share everything and have very little of your own and by not shareing or having two of the same then you have something for yourself, its a good kind of greedy and important for growing up and becoming a person of your own and not a sibling. PS I’m a quadruplet with an idential twin sister, two quadruplet brothers and some younger siblings that are close in age to us and we had turf battles everyday so I sympathize with the siblings that want to read the same book but refuse to buy just one and ‘share it!’.

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  13. H.A.

    Ugh, I was at a bookstore recently where a dad followed his daughter around telling her to find an “appropriate book” and told her she wouldn’t like everything she picked. I was thisclose to stepping in. It was really uncomfortable. Why not let your daughter read about caring for horses-even if she doesn’t have one-if that’s what she’s interested in?

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