Q. I have four children -- 15, 7, 3 and 13 months -- and sometimes have small, typical difficulties with all of them. The younger ones are easy compared with the eldest, however, who is a 10th-grader at a large, public high school. He's our guinea pig.
We have him study or read two hours each school night but he often finishes his homework in an hour or less. After that, he reads Stephen King novels -- even when presented with lots of other interesting, exciting books -- and if we forbade King he'd probably find a way to read him anyway. He also plays Dungeons and Dragons with his friends sometimes, although not to excess. Is it dangerous, as some parents seem to think, or just harmless fantasy?
I'm also fairly sure our son watches R-rated movies at his friends' homes, but otherwise he's a good kid. He may test our rules, and rant and rave about them, but he has never totally rebelled or disobeyed us or tried drugs or alcohol. He held down his first job this summer -- as a lifeguard -- and has been responsible about spending and saving the money he earned.
He also plays organized ice hockey and unorganized tennis, basketball, football, etc., in the neighborhood and it looks like he'll stay on the honor roll even though he's been put in a more challenging program this year.
But what should I do about Stephen King? And what about D & D?
A. If your guinea pig does this well at 15, you should go into the guinea pig business.
Certainly your two-hour requirement to study or read on school nights is a good rule. Reading underscores day-to-day learning, especially in a child, who needs constant reinforcement to absorb all the new material he encounters every day. In fact, studies show that children lose academic ground if they don't do any reading in the summertime.
It doesn't even matter what a child reads, including Stephen King. At this age, it's the habit that counts. Teachers have been using Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes to lure teen-agers into the reading fold for years, and now some of them suggest the works of Stephen King.
It's true that his books are escape literature too, that they follow a formula, and that they're violent and very, very scary, but they are also quite well-written and exciting enough to turn any youngster into a speed reader.
See for yourself. If you pick up "The Stand" (NAL, $4.95), you won't be able to put it down -- and you'll feel compelled to talk to your youngster about it, which is sure to strengthen your connection.
You may not like Stephen King as much as he does, but you'll find that this book -- and all books -- makes a sturdy bridge between you, if you talk to your son as you would talk to your friends and if you don't tell him what to think and what to read on his own time.
By treating him as an intellectual equal, and by honoring him enough to read what he likes, he'll be more interested in reading what you recommend -- especially if you recommend some exciting books.
"Call of the Wild" by Jack London (Penguin, $2.95) is still a great adventure story; "The Collector," by John Fowles (Dell, $4.95), is a chilling book of suspense; "Fifth Business," by Robertson Davies (Penguin, $4.95), is a spellbinding classic of good and evil and an Elmore Leonard mystery like "Bandits" (Warner, $4.95) draws its characters as beautifully as its plot.
Some of these authors write simply, like London, some are more complex, like Fowles, but all have an extra dimension -- a universality -- that will teach your son about human nature, and that's the point of all good fiction.
In the meantime, let your son follow his interests. He sounds like a very sound, stable, interesting teen-ager, and a very smart one, which may explain the appeal of Dungeons and Dragons. The game has a particular attraction for more cerebral preteens and young teens, and it poses no danger unless it's played to the exclusion of everything else. Moderation is the key.
You also want to keep looking the other way if you think your son is seeing R-rated movies, since you can't do a great deal about it unless you put him on a leash. It may seem more honest to okay them and avoid deceit, but this can actually encourage him to see more.
Rules and supervision can do just so much until the conscience goes into high gear. This only happens, however, when a teen-ager has been thinking well in abstractions for a couple of years, and can clearly consider the consequences of his actions -- usually between 14 and 16.
Until then, you have to try to keep your boy safe, which is the best any parent can do.
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