Parents' Corner
by Aster Yilma

Dear Readers,

After my first column appeared in our last issue, insecurity kicked in. “What if no one sends in questions? What if no one finds my column helpful or interesting? What if..., what if...?” I am here to report that the response was overwhelming. Thank you for all the support and encouragement.

I want to remind our readers of my purpose in writing “Parents’ Corner”. It is to share honestly my own experience of trials, tribulations, sad and funny moments, and successes and failures in my journey of parenthood, in the hope that other parents might find my experience helpful. “Parents’ Corner” must not be a substitute for professional help.

1. My husband and I have spent a lot of money buying books for our daughter, but she does not like to read. What can we do to motivate her?
Azeb Tekka New York, NY

I don’t know how old your daughter is but I really believe that getting kids interested in reading has to start at a very early age. A long time ago, I read somewhere that a baby’s sense of hearing develops while still in the womb and that reading aloud stimulates its brain. I did not know whether this was true or not, but whatever I was reading when I was pregnant, I read out loud. My feeling was that if this theory was right, well and good. If not, I had nothing to lose. Since what I read did not mention just how many decibels of noise a fetus can hear, I decided to read extremely loudly - just to make sure that my voice went all the way through any barrier between my lips and the baby’s hopefully developed hearing. When I was in a situation where I could not read, I just talked very loud. “Hey, a baby in a mother’s womb would not know the difference”, I said to myself. So you can imagine how deranged I looked when I walked in the park talking to no one in a voice that was loud enough to reach Jupiter. I am amazed that my husband did not leave me and that my son is as normal as most teenagers. You don’t have to go to such extremes, but I believe that the earlier you start your kids on reading, the better.

Here are some suggestions on the subject:

First, read to your small children every night. Once they know how to read, even if they can only spell out the words, allow them to read to you. It is simply not enough to give them a book and put them in a corner. If you have a child who is fascinated by books and does not need any encouragement, you are very lucky. Most young children, however, want somebody to sit with them during reading sessions. Sitting day after day reading stories and rhymes that are meant for the intellect of small children can at times be mind-numbing for an adult. For me, books with knockknock jokes were the worst. The few jokes that I actually understood were not funny. It is my belief that my son owes me a vacation house in the South of France just for listening to what seemed like trillions of his knock-knock jokes for what seemed like a couple of centuries. I also believe that people who create these jokes should go to jail for life without the possibility of parole.

Being a parent involves many sacrifices. Reading to your children is not only a small sacrifice, it is also a temporary one. Eventually, they learn to appreciate books and to read independently.

Our neighborhood library gives cards to children as soon as they can write their names. Since I was teaching my son how to read and write at home, he was able to get his library card when he was three. He took great pride in using his own card. Believe it or not, having a card of his own motivated him to finish his books quickly so he could use it over and over. Check with your local library. Maybe they have a similar policy. The sooner kids get their library cards, the better.

Second, set an example. I know too many parents who lecture their children about the importance of reading and yet their children never see them holding a single book. Our kids are a lot smarter than we think. They develop hypocrisy detectors at a very early age. We as parents can’t just talk the talk. We also have to walk the walk. I am not referring to things that we can do and they can’t because we are adults and they are not — such as driving or seeing “R” rated movies. When I saw the first episode of “The Simpsons” many years ago, I just loved it! I thought it was great but not age-appropriate for Nathan. You have no idea how difficult it was for me to give up what I felt was a brilliant show. I could have used my position of authority and power to continue watching the show, but I did not. It would have been very difficult to justify why he could not watch a cartoon show and I could. When he was older, one of the shows that he liked to watch was “The Simpsons” and we watched them together religiously for a few years. “How come you don’t have to read and I do? How come you watch TV all the time and I can’t?” We are all familiar with questions similar to these. They are absolutely legitimate.

I am glad to say that this past Christmas, Nathan gave me several seasons of “The Simpsons” on DVD. We watched quite a few of them when he came home for vacation. We just sat in the den and laughed our heads off. I still think it is one of the funniest shows. My husband, on the other hand, hates it.

When I was growing up, we had many Amharic books in our house. What really steered me toward reading was not the presence of the books, but watching my mother sitting on the veranda reading until it got too dark to see. For years, I read at least one or two books a week. Unfortunately, these days, I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. As I am writing this, I am making a commitment to go back to that wonderful habit.

Third, limit TV viewing (that means for the whole family) and use some of that time for reading. Most TV programs don’t stimulate imagination or promote intellectual growth. I can’t stress this enough.

Fourth, understand your children’s interests. I used to buy books for my son that I thought were of great value and would teach him the deeper meaning of life. They are all collecting dust in our basement. What I realized early on was that when I carefully selected books in subjects that he was interested in, he read them in the car, while he was waiting to be picked up from school and (don’t faint - I almost did) even sitting in the backyard while his friends were playing basketball.

Fifth, let’s face it, our children don’t think we parents were ever their age or that we know anything at all. When we suggest something, they will roll their eyes and wonder how we were able to go through life with a collective IQ of a potato. But if a teacher, a librarian or even a stranger walking down the street makes the same suggestion, it is brilliant. So don’t hesitate to have your kids’ teachers, librarians, their 12-year-old friend or anybody else suggest the books that you want your child to read. You will be surprised how cooperative your son or daughter will become. Just make sure that the people you are approaching don’t let your child know that you were the source of the suggestion. We have to do whatever works.

Sixth, put books in your bathrooms. Your kid has to be able to see them and reach them while sitting on the toilet. Trust me. As there are no distractions in a bathroom, a lot of reading can be done. Sometimes, they get so engrossed, they forget to come out.

2. My daughter belongs to several clubs at school. I fear that too many extra activities might make her grades suffer. I want her to give up some of the clubs, but she says she will have a better chance of getting into a good college if she shows she belonged to lots of them. What do you think?
Ayelech Mekuria Columbus, OH

This is a tough one. It really depends on how well your daughter can handle a packed schedule and still maintain good grades. One of my friend’s kids, Allison, is a high school senior who is in an IB (International Baccalaureate) program with a GPA of 3.9. She is captain of her fencing team, senior editor of the school’s literary magazine, has reached the highest rank in Girl Scouts, scored 800 in the verbal and 760 in the math section of the SAT’s, went to Governor School, is an amazing painter and much more. She is self-motivated and is able to juggle it all. But how many kids are like Allison? I don’t know many. Most children would be totally stressed out by this kind of rigorous schedule. So, if your daughter fits the profile of Allison, leave her alone. But if she is like most of our kids, she needs to prioritize.

She is half right about good colleges looking for students who, among other things, are involved in extracurricular activities. While this is true, admission officers want students who show dedication and long- term commitment to what they do rather than students who jump around from activity to activity or have minimal commitment in numerous activities. Top colleges also look for uniqueness. They are more interested in a student who plays the harmonica instead of the piano, or a student who speaks, for example, Amharic rather than Spanish. They can find tons of applicants who have had piano lessons and many who speak Spanish. My niece, Nafkote, just got accepted by many of the top schools in the nation. I believe that the fact that she is fluent in Latin and Amharic has added to the value of her application. A-level colleges have many requirements. I only touched on two. The person who should be able to answer questions that are specific to your daughter’s academic concerns is her school guidance counselor.

3. OK. So here is the situation. My 18 year-old just told me she is pregnant. I have no idea what to do or what to say. Inside I am very angry. I am angry with her and I am angry with myself. I feel like I failed as a mother. I am conflicted. As an Ethiopian, I feel shame because of the stigma associated with it. I don’t even know how to tell my friends at church. On the other hand, I need to help my daughter. I love her to pieces, but I am so angry with her. The only thing I have been doing is praying. What should I do?
Mother in distress Atlanta, Georgia

All caring parents want the very best for their kids. When we see our children make what we consider unhealthy choices, we do get furious. It is understandable that you are feeling angry and it is healthy that you are expressing your anger and resentment. I think it is important that you don’t try to deal with this alone. When I am upset, I have to tap into my support system to help me work through my anger before I have the clarity to make healthy decisions. You may want to talk to your priest, family physician, a therapist, and trusted friends or whatever support system you have to help you put things into perspective. One thing is clear: we cannot hide pregnancy forever. Eventually, it will be evident that your daughter is pregnant.

I am sure that she feels guilty, scared, ashamed, confused, stressed out and angry at herself. My heart goes out to her. You are right. You need to help her. You need to let her know that you will be there for her and that your love is unconditional. You have to assure her that things will work out. Your relationship with her is a lot more important than your relationship with your friends at church.

Both my husband and I believe in prayer. From the time I was a small girl, prayers have been part of my life. Therefore, a few years ago, when Nathan came close to dying, it was natural for us to be constantly on our knees. We asked our friends to pray for him and to remind members of their houses of worship to do the same. We had literally hundreds of people in several countries pray, and many houses of worship held special prayer services.

It might not feel that way now, but in due time, you will come to realize that it is not the first time that an 18-year old got pregnant and that it is not the end of the world. I am sure that once you and her get a chance to reflect on the situation, you will be able to see things differently. You might even find the silver lining if you choose to look for it.

Please send me your questions to and I would be happy to answer them!