By Melissa Radcliff
“Do you have markers,” the child asked a volunteer. “I want my dad to write a message in my books.” As the word spread, other children asked their fathers to do the same.
An event at the library, a parent and child program at school, story time at the bookstore? No, it was Parent Day at a minimum security men’s prison. Children enjoyed time with their fathers assembling and painting coin banks and games, making greeting cards, playing board games, watching a Sesame Street DVD (with a new Muppet, Alex, whose father is in jail), eating a yummy lunch (prepared by men from the prison’s cook school), having their pictures taken, playing intense games of corn hole toss, talking, laughing, crying, and more – exploring books together.
They chose books from a table overflowing with donations from community members. Some of the more precocious children actually sat and read with their fathers. All took a collection of books home with them, with the messages inside a reminder of their day together.
Having books available and free is intentional. We encouraged the children and their fathers to spend time looking at the books together, opening the covers, flipping through the pages, talking about the books. By doing this fathers learn more about their children and what their interests are. Sometimes conversation came more easily when there was a book to share.
Having the books available creates an opportunity for community members and organizations to be part of these special days, to support relationships between children and their incarcerated parents, and to emphasize the importance of literacy even when a parent is incarcerated.
Having books at Parent Day put literacy on equal footing with crafts, board games, and corn hole toss, and gave fathers the chance to show children the value of reading.
Having books there means that children can proudly practice reading and show their fathers how well they read. Unfortunately for children separated from their parents due to incarceration, those chances are few and far between.
Having books there reminds the men of the importance literacy plays in the lives of their families.
Having books there also raised questions. How do fathers who are unable to read handle that part of Parent Day? How do fathers encourage reading beyond Parent Day when they aren’t in the home? Are there other adults in a child’s life who can fill this
role? Can incarcerated parents talk about books during phone calls and visiting days and when they write letters home?
Yes, we do have markers! And a continued commitment to creating reading and book experiences for children of incarcerated parents and their mother and fathers.
Melissa Radcliff is the executive director of Our Children’s Place, an agency focused on raising awareness about children of incarcerated parents. The agency works to coordinate Parent Day. She can be reached at email@example.com.