Dr. Robert Needlman is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve Medical School and a pediatrician with MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. He is also the co-author of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, having been chosen by Spock’s widow to take over the book after Spock’s death.
I am so pleased that he will be keynoting our conference, Fostering Lifelong Learners: Prescribing Books for Early Childhood Education, to be held on April 25th at the Cambridge Public Library (free! Sign up!). The Horn Book is co-sponsoring this conference with CPL and with Reach Out and Read, of which Dr. Needlman is a co-founder and a member of its board of directors. Here I give him the five-question treatment.
1. You are one of the founders of Reach Out and Read. What led you to think that such a program was needed?
It was a combination of several things: being the son of a nursery-school teacher; living up the hill from a bookstore, where I found a copy of Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook; training in an interdisciplinary child development unit where we had doctors and educators working closely together; being trained to think about children and families holistically; and having a young daughter at home, reading to her every night. It was exciting to realize that emergent literacy was a field that was not spoken of at all in the pediatric literature. Imagine that! A whole area of crucial child development which doctors seemed utterly unaware of. It was an opportunity that could not be passed up.
2. What did being a parent teach you about being a doctor?
Pretty much everything. The key to effective pediatric practice is empathy– being able to connect to the powerful feelings of love, hope, and fear which all of us parents share. Some gifted doctors can make this connection without being parents themselves, but for me it was the process of falling in love with my own child, and living in constant fear for her, that allowed me, as a young person, to make common cause with the parents in my care. I think these same forces keep me going today.
3. Your mother taught at the University of Chicago Lab School, which is justly proud of its storytelling and read-aloud traditions. What stories did she read or tell to you?
I don’t really remember stories she read to me. I do remember (or think I remember) listening to Tall Fireman Paul, while lying on the couch in the house where I grew up. And I remember many, many conversations about things that went on in my mom’s preschool classrooms– stories about the children and their learning, about things in the world and about their own feelings and ideas. My mother was, by every measure, an extraordinary teacher, and still is, in her 80’s.
4. What advice can you give to the parent who is shy about reading aloud?
I’m not sure what “shy” means in this context. Some parents hesitate to read aloud in front of other adults (that is, in front of me, in the clinic). They’re a bit shy about making goofy animal noises or really letting loose and enjoying the book. But I think you might mean, instead of shy, unsure of themselves, doubting their ability to “do it right.” In these cases, advice may be useful, but I find direct hands-on demonstration and feedback to be more useful. If a mother can see how I do it (no magic, just having fun and trying to engage the child in a playful exchange), then she can often do it herself with me watching, and then I can point out the things that she and her child are doing that are just right , just what “reading” should be. I think this sort of hands-on in-the-moment teaching is something special that we as doctors have to offer.
5. What children’s book do you hope shows up at every baby shower?
I’m a fan of Pat The Bunny, because it appeals to multiple senses and invites a baby’s active exploration; I’m only sorry that it’s so narrow in its ethnic and cultural identification. For little babies, of course, it’s mainly the sound of the parent’s voice that is so attractive. So, any book that an adult might want to read would work fine. Some parents I know read their latest romance potboiler, some read their chemistry textbooks, both fine choices. The classics, of course, need to be part of every childhood: Goodnight Moon, The Snowy Day, Where the Wild Things Are, of course, but also Stone Soup, Millions of Cats, Blueberries for Sal, and so many more. My own favorite was Time Of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. It lived on a high shelf, and my daughter knew it was special; we’d take it down and read it together when we felt in the mood.