The digital divide gets a lot of attention. But in addition to serving the growing digital needs of the community, libraries also serve our children by bridging what I like to term the parental divide. By parental divide, I mean that although some parents stay at home or have babysitters or tutors to look after their kids, many don’t! Some kids are on their own until their parents come home from work. And sometimes things are just rough at home. So where can these kids go? The library! In this way, the library staff becomes a kind of a substitute parent. We make sure the kids are doing their homework, we look at their report cards, we feed them and give them Band-Aids when they get hurt, we make sure they are occupied in a positive way, we teach them courtesies like saying “hello” and “thank you” and the right ways of behaving in a public space.
The way I see it, the library is meant to serve the community, and kids are just as much a part of the community as anyone else. Besides, who can I call—Ghostbusters? I can only call on my colleagues and myself to make a positive difference for these kids, even though we are limited in our training and resources. Maybe they should make a class called “Parenting 101” in library school? Goodness knows it would be a very practical class given our day-to-day customer base.
We try to bridge the parental divide in a variety of ways:
Food assistance: Thanks to an anonymous donor, we are able give out healthy snacks to the kids who attend our programs. It’s one thing when an adult asks you for money, but it’s quite another when small kids ask you for food because they’re hungry. One time, police outreach officers donated a big box of apples and bananas to the library. Those boxes were gone in less than two hours! Healthy snacks are usually not their first choice, but when it’s their only choice, they’ll eat it.
Hygiene classes: Our children’s librarian regularly hosts hygiene classes for the kids because, let’s be honest, sometimes they stink. One day she was hosting a dental hygiene program, and I asked a young boy if he wanted to come. He told me he hadn’t brushed his teeth in the last two days because he didn’t know he had to do it every day! We give out supplies like deodorant, sanitary pads, and more. We’ve also hosted relationship classes with a social worker, which cover healthy relationship practices, including what to do when you have a romantic crush and how to flirt in a healthy way. Wearing deodorant obviously helps in the quest for love…
Games: I’m proud of our library’s ping pong table and I am so glad that I can introduce the kids to something new. When they grow up, I hope they can remember their experience playing ping pong for the first time at their local library! Fitness programs are popular because the kids have so much energy, especially after sitting in school all day. Our page also introduced a weekly Hip Hop Dance Club, which was a big hit. Let’s be real, if the kids are going to run around the library, it’s best to have them do it as part of a program.
Speakers: Sometimes we are able to bring special speakers, like Keith Perrin, the cofounder of the FUBU fashion line to talk about entrepreneurship, or James Giuliani, author of Dogfella, to talk about bullying and animal cruelty. Yesterday, our city council member came in to do a storytime. Besides reading a fun story, the kids also got to ask the councilmember about his job serving the community and let him know how important libraries are. Police outreach officers are another great resource, and they brought over McGruff the Crime Dog!
Talent shows/Plays: Sometimes the kids themselves even put on performances. They love to share their singing and dancing talents with the world. Our Valentine’s Day Ball was very special. The kids had one invitation to give to a special adult in their life. During the ball, they had to read a short essay or poem about why that adult was special to them. Many of the adults who were there were crying because they were so moved! Once again, to rephrase my earlier quote, if the kids are going to be loud, give them a microphone and call it a program.
Kids are like plants. All they need is some sunshine, someone to show them that they care. And I can say for sure, one thing that we teach the kids is something their own parents might not teach them— that it’s fun to be a librarian.