Home / Opinion / The spoiler of books

Our seven-year-old son brings home library books—a new activity started this academic year for them. However, in the last two months, the teachers have complained that he scribbles on them, or tears a page out, sometimes takes the book back wet, or cancels out some words with marker. I find that he does read the books, and can tell us quite a bit about the stories or information in them, so it is not as if he doesn’t like reading or is being forced to read them. We are told that a few other boys and girls also indulge in this, and the only thing the school can do is threaten them that they will be banned from taking books. We really don’t wish this to happen. In what words or actions can we stop this behaviour of his?

It is usually slightly younger children who indulge in this, as they have yet to make a distinction between “allowed" and “disallowed" surfaces on which they can or cannot draw—so walls, your diary or work papers and books could be decorated with great panache. Until we begin to teach them to differentiate. But your child is old enough for you to introduce him to the concept of vandalizing of something. Perhaps you could show him examples of monuments or even trees being scribbled on (plenty of examples in all our cities!), and without exactly lecturing, lead him into a chat about how it is such an inappropriate response to a thing of beauty or interest. When he sees a monument or a tree with some vandal’s name carved into it, you could ask him if anyone who reads that name thinks the person is clever/funny/worth remembering, or whether it only makes people think of that person as a fool.

One parent in a similar predicament had a rather drastic cure for exactly this “ailment" of spoiling books. He scribbled things on his eight-year-old child’s other toys and stuff, even on one of her favourite dresses, to get her to get a feel of what vandalizing feels like from the other end of the tunnel.

While you may not want to take such a big step, which is a hard and rather cruel (even if quite effective) lesson, some kind of system of reward as well as punishment would need to be put in place. As one parent says ruefully, and as you feel too, a lot of children don’t like books so much these days, and so it would not really serve as a deterrent if you stopped them from borrowing books or from reading activity. They might just shrug it off and not read library books. Perhaps you could link it to something else like TV, games, outings—where you would then curtail those every time that he destroys or damages a book. You could insist that he shows you his library book after he is done, for you to check if it is being returned without any scribbles and other damage. Rather than giving him a physical reward for this, you could give him a hug, or a pat on the back, and special treatment in some form, where he feels that he has earned your respect. You need to make the connection between his scribbling and disrespect to the book, and how in this way he (and his friends) is disrespected too.

Gouri Dange is the author of More ABCs of Parenting (Random House), and ABCs of Parenting.

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