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REAL LIFE

90s FAMILY : Repetition Is Just Part of Being a Kid

February 01, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How many times could you watch "Oklahoma!" in three weeks? If you're 9-year-old Katie Holleran, it's about a dozen. "I like the singing and the dancing," she explained. "I like when Judd takes Laurey to the party."

Her 3-year-old brother is equally enamored. Their mother, Mary, said: "He'll start up singing 'Pore Judd is Daid' in the middle of a family picnic."

OK, it's not "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" or "Basic Instinct." Still, she said, "We wonder, are they watching too much, too many times?"

A Los Angeles father said he knew his kids' obsessions were too much when he couldn't get Raffi songs out of his head. "It got so bad that I would be sitting at work, and I'd start mindlessly humming 'Baby Beluga,' and people would wonder, 'What is your problem?' "

Books were worse. He estimated that he has read a book about a ladybug "5,000 times" to his daughter. "It starts off with a fly going by, and a frog tries to catch the fly and a dog tries to catch the frog, and it goes on and on. It got to the point where I've blocked the rest out of my gray matter, it was so horrific."

Likewise, he said, "We went through a couple copies of 'Good Dog, Carl.' The pages were starting to decompose."

It's the parents, of course, who have the problem, said Jim Trelease, author of "The New Read Aloud Handbook" (Penguin, 1989) and other anthologies for children.

"There are dozens of reasons why a child might want to read the same thing over and over," he said. "(Child psychologist) Bruno Bettelheim used to say, we should not be asking ourselves why do they want it over and over, we should be asking ourselves, what is in this story that is pulling this child back to it again and again."

The story could provide reassurance, like a night light. Or it could be a trail, leading to a clearer understanding of a troubling situation.

Sometimes, it is just a ploy to postpone bedtime.

Lawyer Marc Braun told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that his son decided that each character in a book needed to be named after each child in his day-care class. The next night they all had to have different names. "Pretty soon," the father said, "a book that should have taken 10 minutes at most to read was taking 45. I thought I was going to lose my mind."

But Trelease's theory is that repetition is a way for children to make sense of the welter of information tossed into brains that haven't developed the ability to discriminate and edit out the nonessential.

In an experiment 15 years ago, a group of children and a group of adults were both shown portions of a basketball game in which, at one point, a man with an umbrella cut across a corner of the court to find his seat. While none of the adults noticed the man, a large number of children did. "They weren't editing," Trelease said. "In the course of a movie, it's almost impossible for their memories to absorb it all, so things will be missed. They may be focusing on the wrong thing."

Most children stop needing repetition by 5 or 6, he said, although some sensitive children may continue through adolescence, he said. Some fourth- and fifth-grade children return to books they loved as toddlers as a security blanket, he said.

Unfortunately, rather than the award winners, he said what they often pick are "the trashiest thing you bought for 69 cents at Wal-Mart," he said.

Meanwhile, parents can keep themselves sane by changing parts of the story as they read. Here's how Trelease used to read "Little Red Riding Hood": "So Little Red Riding Hood picked up the basket of goodies, went into the dark forest, and there was a dead man's hand. . . ."

Not only did it become a game, he said, "it certainly kept me awake."

It's also a good idea to have a wide range of books and tapes to expand children's horizons, Trelease said.

"It's like inviting a child to a party and introducing him to all the other guests," he said. "The world is the party. It's our job to introduce children to all the various parts."

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