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Parenting in the Age of Harry Potter

Reflecting on lessons learned while the children grew-up reading the series.

Because my children grew-up reading Harry Potter, saying goodbye to the series will be like saying goodbye to a son, albeit a son that only visits once in a while.

We read the first book aloud, my then-7-year-old son and I, huddled together at bedtime.

He had been clamoring to read the book, which had been out for almost as many years as he had been alive, but I was apprehensive about letting him because of his age and figured if we read it together, I could quickly edit out anything that needed editing.

It was the start of a mild family obsession with the series, between the kids, parents and grandparents.

Right from the start, the books presented good parenting opportunities.

An early memorable parenting moment was when I realized how shocked my young son was by the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry. He was upset that Harry, a fictional character, was forced to live in a small cupboard under the stairs and suffered all kinds of mistreatment in the Dursley home.

Part of me was proud that, as inexperienced as a parent as I was, my son recognized bad parenting when he saw it, and I wasn’t it, at least compared to the Dursleys. And the other part of me was a little sad about what he learned –  that not everyone is nice, including family, which can sometimes be worse than strangers. Maybe he wouldn't have been so shocked had we read Cinderella first or watched a few more Disney movies.

That year, my son went as Harry Potter for Halloween, a common occurrence among children whenever a new book or movie comes out but that year, most people didn’t recognize a youngster in a plain wizard’s robe with a scar and glasses as Harry Potter since the books hadn’t become wildly popular yet.

The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, my son read alone. We parents were proud of his reading skills and he had the ambition to tackle it. My husband and I fought over who got to read it first. I think I let him win on the condition that he checked it over to make sure it was o.k. for our son to read.

From the second book, I co-opted a quote from Albus Dumbledore and pasted it to our fridge: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

I thought the quote exemplified something everyone in our family needed to be reminded of. It remained on my fridge for at least a year, after being recopied more than once.

After that, my reading of the Harry Potter books slowed but my husband and son continued to read them voraciously, discussing the books at length. Truth be told, I wasn’t into the intricacies of the plot as the rest of the family was. I just liked a good read and could wait my turn patiently.

The Harry Potter bug was strong in our house. My son remembers being home sick from school for three long days, confined to the couch but being allowed to read non-stop the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

We waited before allowing our son to read the fourth book because we had heard it was darker than the previous three. Cautiously, we parents read it ourselves first. The death of a student and the return of Voldemort in the flesh convinced us we were right to wait.

Our eldest son would read the fourth book in fourth grade, an almost-intolerable wait for him, and meanwhile, our youngest son was resisting the urge to join the Harry Potter bandwagon, mainly because it was his brother’s obsession and he just wasn’t interested.

By this time, the movie releases had caught up with us and my husband and son went to see the Prisoner of Azkaban. The movie was good but not as good as the book, a consensus that would remain for the rest of the series.

The grandparents got into the act and began noticing how interested the family was in Harry Potter. One grandma became a fan after reading the books. She buys the DVD's for us when they come out and we watch them together. She also bought our son a special wand. Unfortunately, our son learned like Harry that broken wands can’t be fixed (without the elder wand, my HP geeks tell me, but we’re a little short of those).

Harry Potter and the books became a focus of discussion among other members of our family as well, including my siblings, both raising children in conservative areas of the South. We were politely asked to not buy Harry Potter books for our nieces and nephews. We were also asked if we were worried about our children learning about magic and potential anti-Christian attitudes and message in the book.

The discussion was never heated but it was pointed. We abided by the requests and answered that no, we weren’t worried about our children learning about magic. We routinely tell children that Santa is real, don’t we? Magic. Tooth fairy? Magic, again.

In this case, though, our son was old enough to understand the difference between fact and fiction and never believed in the magic of Harry’s world. He loved learning about the Latin roots of the spells and also liked the way they rolled off the tongue, which explained his tendency to say things like “lumos” or “alohomora.”

We also didn’t feel the books were anti-Christian, after having read them ourselves, which carried some weight since my siblings hadn’t read them. I’m sure other words were exchanged on the topic but no hard feelings remain. We instructed our son not to talk to his Southern cousins about Harry Potter and bought non-controversial gifts instead.

Parenting lesson learned: tolerance of others’ parenting styles and decisions.

Once my son’s reading caught up with the books that were published, it was an out-and-out Harry Potter fest in our household whenever a new book or movie was released.

Some memorable moments were right here in Waukesha, like the Big Harry Deal events which included trivia games, scavenger hunts and geocaching, other favorite family activities. Also, the midnight book release at Martha Merrell’s provided fun and bonding time for the family.

After a while, even our non-Harry Potter child was converted. He says that he likes the books because they make him think. They’re deep and are only really figured out after you re-read them, an explanation for the enduring popularity of the series.

As parents, we’re glad to have children who’ve liked Harry Potter.

In addition to the lessons we parents learned, we know that the children have been exposed to important themes like good versus evil, sacrifice for the greater good, determination and persistence, all of which resonate through the books.

We’ll miss Harry Potter and the in-depth family discussions the books generated and the fun activities associated with book and movie releases. We’ll miss, too, the exciting reading the books provided. J.K. Rowlings can sure spin a tale and we're looking forward to reading whatever else she publishes.

As I write this, the rest of the family went to the midnight release of the last movie, but I chose not to go this time.

I’m not really looking forward to saying good bye to Harry and his friends, who are now just a few years older than my oldest son, a gangly teen and former 7-year-old who snuggled with me eight years ago for a quiet bedtime story and began a long journey into a magical, mysterious and sometimes scary world.

Maggie Macaulay July 19, 2011 at 01:39 AM
Thank you for your poignant article. Our daughter has grown up reading Harry Potter, dressing as Hermoine for Halloween and loving the films. We just saw the final episode - and not for the final time! - and saying goodbye to Harry was indeed difficult. We have placed a link to your article in the July 26 issue of Parenting News, Whole Hearted Parenting's free weekly newsletter. Please visit us at www.WholeHeartedParenting.com. Thanks again!

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