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Hosted by Jacqueline L. Salmon
Guest - Istar Schwager, Ph.D.

Noon EDT: Monday, July 10, 2000

Jacqueline L. Salmon
Jacqui Salmon
Families...and So On, hosted by Washington Post families reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon, is a free-ranging and freewheeling look at the American family. This is the place to talk about the burning issues facing the 21st century family, such as whether the world really needs diaper-wipe heaters.

This week, join Jacqui and special guest, Istar Schwager, Ph.D., educational psychologist and creator of CreativeParents.com. They'll be discussing the craze over the Harry Potter books.

Istar Schwager
Istar Schwager, Ph.D.
Jacqueline L. Salmon has been writing about suburban family life ("suburban" being a state of mind rather than a geographic location) for the last four years. She is married, has two children and (natch..) lives in the suburbs.

Jacqui's several lives as a mother have included stints as an at-home mom, working part-time and doing the mega-hour/mega-commute thing. She's also the co-author of three books on parenting and child development.

Below is a transcript of today's discussion.

Jacqui Salmon: Hello everyone and welcome. Join us TODAY (Monday) for a lively discussion of the Harry Potter craze. Is all that hocus-pocus really good for kids? Tell us what you think! We'll be joined by Istar Schwager, an educational consultant, who'll tell us what she thinks about the witches, wizards and muggles of Harry Potter-land. Send in your questions or comments NOW, and we'll get to them at noon. If you can't join us then, the transcript of our discussion will be available afterward. What's YOUR opinion of Harry Potter? Kids, we'd like to hear from you, too!

Jacqui Salmon: Hi. I'm here and signed on. you can message me w/ any questions or requests as we go along. We already have several questions/comments about Harry Potter, but I'll also tell readers they can ask you questions on other family topics as well.

Jacqui Salmon: It's now noon, and we're off. Send in your questions and comments NOW, and we promise to get to them within 15 minutes--assuming they meet our (relatively low) standards of taste and appropriateness! We welcome queries about Harry Potter or any other topic. My guest is Istar Schwager.

Jacqui Salmon: Hi, Istar. What is it about Harry Potter that appeals to kids so much?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Harry Potter offers a special combination of the best in children's books. It offers kids hope; Harry is a child who is empowered. It's about unlocking inner power. Everyone wants to recognized for their true and essential self -- and to feel a sense of mastery and control over events.

Laurel: I'm 30-something and recently bought the first book in the Potter series. So far, it is wonderful. I think the craze is great--it certainly is motivating a lot of young people to pick up a book and read, which is very valuable for their education. As for the supernatural aspect of it, how is it much different than the Lord of the Rings series? I think it demonstrates wonderful imagination.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Harry is a kid and readers -- both adults and kids identify with him. Kids, especially in the later elementary and preteen years are grappling with a world of mysteries -- there's so much beyond any of our comprehension and kids that age are beginning to recognize that. So the magic in the book is a metaphor for dealing with the unknown -- that which defies logic.

Jacqui Salmon: Here's an interesting factoid. If I've mentioned it previously, forgive me. But it bears repeating: Sales of Harry Potter books (about 21 million) have now outstripped sales of Sony Playstations (about 20 million).

Alexandria, VA: I think anything that gets kids out from in front of the blood, guts and gore video games is beneficial. Hooray for Ms. Rowlings for getting more children to read, getting more parents to read to their children, and entertaining kids of all ages (I love the books and I'm 26 with no children!). The whole series has been wonderful, imaginative and full of adventure, along with some good "life lessons" along the way. Hopefully kids will continue reading other wonderful classics like the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings (which I grew up on).

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: It's great that you mention the Chronicles of Narnia. J.K. Rowling writes in a tradition of a certain type of British fantasy. The original Mary Poppins books are also great. P.J. Travers was a real scholar of Eastern religion -- a fascinating woman. Books offer so much to kids and adults -- a sense of possibilities and a chance to use their imaginations.

Arlington, Virginia: I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of The Goblet of Fire (arriving tomorrow via Amazon owl), and I'm one of the adults who buys these books COMPLETELY for myself. I love them!

But I wonder how parents with younger children are faring as Harry ages and the books get scarier. I know J.K. Rowling has been nothing but upfront and straightforward about the fact that Harry will be growing up during this series, but does it seem to be affecting younger readers yet?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Good question about younger kids and Harry Potter. The books seem to me best suited to kids over 9 years old or so. Of course much of children's literature -- especially the old folk and fairy tales are pretty scary. At their best, they help kids deal with their fears. One of the differences between a book and other media is that you can pace yourself. You can put a book down -- skip parts--discuss. Books leave more up to the imagination and are less graphic. But parents should be aware and careful-- talk to their kids about this and be careful with younger kids.

Vienna, VA: My name is Christopher. I love the Harry Potter books. I'm already reading the new one. J.K. Rowling has done the best job on Harry Potter. I love the new one so far. P.S. They are very magical. (My mom helped me type this!)

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Christopher -glad you're reading Harry Potter. Think about what other books you'd like to read before the next book in the series comes out. There are a lot of other great books out there. Have fun.

Arlington, DC: I read somewhere that the author had blatantly plagiarized much of the ideas for her books, including character names. Now I can find nothing about it in the press. Know anything about this?

Jacqui Salmon: I haven't heard anything about that, but it's very true that Rowling's Harry Potter series is similar to many well-known series of children's literature, such as The Chronicles of Narnia and the Wizard of Oz books. They're about kids who have magical powers and use them to fight evil in the world.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.:  

medway, massachusetts: I have a grandson, 11 who didn't read any of the Potter-books.
Which one will capture his attention?
Is there a Harry Potter book which is a favorite among the young readers?


Tammy Shemer

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: If you're recommending a book in the series to your grandson, why not start with the first in the series -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone -- the plot continues so it's best to start at the beginning.

Reston VA: I don't have kids and have not read the books. But I think that kids are better off reading instead of watching so much TV.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: It's great to get kids reading early. There is an amazing world of books out there. And one of the best things about this craze is that kids are sharing books -- talking about them. They are a form of "social currency" the way sports and politics and movies are. Kids are reading Harry and then talking to friends about character, plot, motivation -- it's wonderful.

Virginia: I love the Harry Potterbooks because they really make you think. I love fantasies so I really love these kinds of books. I haven't finished the new book but I am halfway through. J.K. Rowling has done a very very good job writing these books. I am 11 and I am a girl.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: At 11 I think you're at a perfect age to read Harry Potter. It's interesting how the books are popular with boys and girls -- with people of lots of different ages.

Detroit, MI: Anything that gets kids excited about reading is great...But what about after the book is read? One of the things about Harry Potter is that these books are so good. Any others that are just as good?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: There are lots and lots of books that are wonderful. Every year the American Library Association names a Newbery winner and if you take a look at their website -- or go to mine at CreativeParents.com you'll see a list of the winners over many years. Many of these have become classics. We've mentioned the Narnia books and Mary Poppins (which in their original are more sophisticated than in the picture book form) --also the Great Brain series; the Wizard of Oz series. Again -- look for the originals. Go to the library. Get recommendations -- depending on what kinds of books you like. There's a fabulous world of books out there.

Leland, Michigan: My name is Lizzie and I'm 11. I think that the books are very magical and I think that it's good that children read them. and they're interesting and they leave you at the edge of your seat. I finished the book and the ending is GREAT, but it's scary and it kind of leaves you wondering what the other books are going to be like.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: If you're finding the Harry Potter books a little scary then take a break. Everyone has different tastes in books. Some people love mysteries or science fiction and other people love other types of books. There's a lot out there to read that's not scary. One of the things about books is you can read a little at a time and sort of edge up on the scary parts. Or skip over them and get a friend to fill in the plot.

DC: Hi Jacqui, and thanks for hosting this chat. I have read about parents who love the Harry Potter books because they are the first books their kids actually enjoy reading. Do you believe that their love for Harry Potter and his magical adventures will transfer over to love for other books as well? What is the best way to encourage kids to try books by authors other than Rowling?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Children's librarians and book store managers are saying that kids are reading more -- that at least some of the Potter craze is carrying over. One of the best ways to get kids love reading is to read aloud to them. Even kids who are well into elementary school and older love to hear stories read aloud. Another is for kids to see their parents reading and excited about books -- talking about what their reading -- clearly enjoying their reading. Introducing kids to a variety of authors is important -- and letting kids follow their individual tastes. Some kids will find an author they love and want to read everything by that author.

The summer is a great time to go to the library or a bookstore. You can also pass along or trade books with friends. Getting discussions going is important. For many people, books, and insights about books are best when shared. Kid book groups are a good idea for many kids. For others reading is a more solitary pleasure.

Jacqui Salmon: Hey, folks. The supply of questions/comments is running low, so send yours in NOW and we'll get to it ASAP. Keep in mind that if you can't stick around for the whole discussion, you can read a transcript here later.

San Antonio: Hello, Istar! I've 6 & 9 year old daughters. The younger was bored with listening to Harry Potter and didn't appear to be scared. My 9 year old loves him, but only if I read aloud and do the voices! We just returned from an 12 hour car trip where we listened to the Chamber of Secrets. Even though I'd read it before, it was wonderful, even made a fan out of my 13 year old nephew! With a book, you can read through the scary parts and end on a more peaceful note. Children are in control as the characters dance through their imaginations. Television and movies take that control away. We find Rowling to be similar to Dahl - who's silly books we love!
p.s. I've already started by copy of Harry Potter #4!
-- denise moore

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Hello Denise. I agree about kids having control over books. You can always put a book aside and think about it. Also, the images that a book conjures up come from the readers imagination -- they aren't, as you say, imposed from the outside.

Jacqui Salmon: Istar, how can a book series like Harry Potter enhance a parent-child relationship?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Reading books together is a great way to get kids and parents talking about a shared experience. So much child-parent conversation is about schedules, homework, and other day to day -- often rather pressured topics.

Talking about books is a chance to discuss values, characters, why people behave the way they do. It's a chance to share humor and discuss fears. Children talk to parents spontaneously -- not when we're asking them focused questions. Books make communication possible when the topic is not the kid and parent -- but a little removed. Kids often feel freer discussing Harry's point of view -- and revealing their own in the process.

Jacqui Salmon: Let's depart briefly from the world of Harry Potter. Istar, tell us about your Web site, CreativeParents.com.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: My web site, CreativeParents.com is designed to encourage creativity in both parents and kids. It's about parents who value creativity supporting each other in the face of a world which puts a lot of stress on families. I think we all have enormous inner resources that are untapped -- our potential to do good in the world, to be in touch with our own histories in a positive way, to see patterns in nature and people. Creativity exists in all areas of life, not just the arts but science and practical problem-solving situations.

Fairfax VA: I have to say that the Harry Potter books are "safe" reading for this day and age. I may be betraying my geezerdom by confessing that the popular reads when I was 12 or so were books by the likes of Ernest Thompson Seton, such as "Wild Animals I Have Known" and "Rolf in the Woods." "Two Little Savages" was especially liked, as it dispensed detailed instructions with illustrations on how to make bows and arrows and traps for animals, plus how to skin them and tan the hides. Spears and tomahawks were also included. Unlike the voodoo in Harry Potter, these are real things, which is probably why they aren't allowed anymore.

Jacqui Salmon: Go ahead, betray your "geezerdom"! Children's literature has always been pretty grim at times. In fact, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are pretty scary--murderous stepmothers, evil witches, absent parents... But I wasn't aware that other children's books got that detailed. It's always good to hear, however, that this generation of parents/kids didn't invent graphic descriptions of blood and guts in children's books.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.:  

Somewhere, USA: I love Harry Potter as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that all of the hubbus that ensues whenever a new title is released teaches kids a bad lesson: consumerism is good and owning the latest of everything is good. Whatever happened to libraries? Yes, a young reader might have to wait a while before the latest Harry Potter title is available at their local library. But in the meantime, they'll encounter a whole world of books on subjects that might never have engaged their interest. And they'll learn a lesson about patience and responsibility. Any thoughts?

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Good point. The library is filled with the most exciting insights into people and places. All sorts of information on anything of interest. Of course the process taking out a book-- and returning it on time teaches responsibility. It also teaches kids about the sharing of resources. You don't have to own things to enjoy them. Museums and libraries are places where we can enjoy without owning.

Dunn Loring, Virginia: My son, Sam, is 14 and has become enamoured of the violent interactive video games on the web. Lots of shooting, lots of blood splattering all about. We keep hoping he'll get tired of it and move back into real life, but so far. . . ! He's very normal otherwise, a good member of the family, well-adjusted in every respect, gets good grades at school. He just prefers spending his free time in those games. Any suggestions? We try to surround him with other things, but he politely but firmly shoves them off. If we simply turn off the computer, we think he will turn ugly, which he isn't at all now.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Have you talked to your son about this in a very direct way? At 14 it sounds as if you might be able to come up with a plan together for weaning him away from video games. One way is to create a time limit per day. Discuss this with him and be ready to negotiate -- perhaps an hour or half hour a day. Once you've agreed on a time limit, be firm about it. Then try to introduce other activities to fill that time. I know it's very difficult dealing with kids his age -- but knowing that you are concerned and communicating that with him is an important first step.

Jacqui Salmon: A belated comment about visiting the library. I recently took my son to our local library and after picking out a book, he looked around and said: "OK, now where do we pay?" Well, we've increased our visits to the library a LOT.

Jacqui Salmon: Istar, how can parents help younger children who want to read Harry because their older siblings are reading them? My 7-year-old son desperately wants me to read the book to him because his big sister is reading it, but I think some of the themes might be too mature for him.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: It's always hard telling a younger sibling that they are not ready to do what their older sibling is doing. Part of what the younger child wants is to be involved -- to be part of the family activity. Reading parts of Harry -- or making a Harry Potter cliff notes (maybe your daughter can do some pictures for it) that summarize the main points will work. This is an issue for lots of activities but, for instance including younger kids in board games as part of a team -- is really a way to answer their desire for inclusion.

Jacqui Salmon: And getting back to creative parenting for a minute. You really encourage parents to indulge in their OWN interests, as well as stay involved in their children's pastimes as well. Do you think that parents these days immerse themselves too much in their children's world? Indeed, I wonder if we parents ought to just step back and let kids appreciate Harry on their own. I don't recall my parents ever expressing an interest in the books that I read as a child, and I enjoyed them just as much.

Istar Schwager, Ph.D.: Life now is so much more hurried than it was when we were growing up. Part of the reason that parents are so involved in their kids activities is that it's often the only way that they can spend "quality time" together. In the past their was more downtime -- more leisurely time doing things like cooking and shopping and just hanging out in the same room.

Downtime is still very important for kids and parents. None of us seem to have enough time to just be; to explore, think, engage in activities that aren't goal oriented. That kind of time is, ultimately, very productive. It's often when we -- both parents and kids do our best thinking.

As for creative parenting. Yes. I believe that when parents are feeling fulfilled, actualized, involved in activities they love -- they are more giving and nurturing parents. They also share their enthusiasm with their kids and give them "permission" to pursue their interests fully.

Jacqui Salmon: That's it for this week. Many thanks to our guest and to all those who generously contributed suggestions for books and Web sites that would appeal to kid readers (of any age). See you next week, when we'll tackle the topic of single parenthood-the parts that make you crazy and the parts that are really kinda nice. In the meantime, happy reading.

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