What's more important to a child's development: books or moms?
Books, of course.
But let's throw the moms a bone or two. They do a mostly decent job (quick, name someone who's influenced you more).
And their love for reading is contagious — just one of their many motherly subterfuges, one of the sneaky ways they make us better.
So I crashed one of their ubiquitous book clubs the other night, looking for thoughts on the role of reading in a kid's life, parenting in general and how they'd mother differently if they had the chance to do it all over again.
Here's the setting: Betsy's backyard, on one of those SoCal patios right out of a magazine. Nearby, a waterfall. And the woodwind sounds of Chardonnay cascading into a glass.
I'm not sure if it's my fantasy or my worst nightmare, but I'm surrounded by successful women, 50ish and funny, half of them Stanford grads.
"Hi, I'm Chris, and I'm a bookaholic."
We talk about the latest books awhile, then about the moms themselves, then about their kids.
The first thing I want to know is if their children love to read. Because, apparently, mine don't.
For three decades, my wife and I read to our kids, even on those deadly long days when the agonies of the office collected into the back of our necks and we couldn't keep our eyes open another minute. Even on those days, we'd find a way to read to our children before bed.
And I'm still doing it with my 11-year-old.
I love it, and believe in it. I just don't understand why my three adult children don't adore books. It's like a Kardashian not liking mascara. Or a Bieber not liking jail.
In fairness, my adult kids are on top of the news, thanks to the jittery journalism of our day: the tweets, twerps and Instagrams.
But do they read for pure pleasure, hooked on Tom Perrotta or Gillian Flynn? Nada chance.
So I ask these moms whether they share this frustration. In our earnestness, did we somehow derail our children's need to read?
Apparently, no. The moms at this meeting say their kids love to read, and if some of their children don't, they are unwilling to fess up.
Then I throw out my notion that, since we're so invested in our kids, empty-nesting is harder today than it was on our parents. When the kids finally go away, doesn't that leave us feeling sort of jobless?
"No, it's easier now because there are other things you can do," says Monica, an empty-nester who now works for a nonprofit. "When our moms were 50 and the kids went off, there wasn't anything else for them."
They all nod.
Hmmmm. Evidently, I'm not really as tuned in to modern motherhood as I'd hoped. I thought I understood moms. Not a lot. Enough to hold a conversation.
But I keep plugging.
Given the chance to do it all over again, how would they raise their own kids? What would they do differently?
"No club soccer!" shouts Kathy, a former PTA president and mother of two. "I didn't like it at the time; I don't like it now. It hurt the family."
"What I wouldn't worry about as much is school," confesses Sara, an editor with one son in college and another about to start. "For us, travel was almost as important."
"He didn't need to be in three sports ... we really never had a family trip," says Betsy, whose athletic son went on to the Naval Academy.
"I'd chill," says Ronna, an author and children's book reviewer.
"Enjoy it more," says Laura, an urban planner.
"Yeah, just relax about it," says Lisa, an attorney for Universal.
"I'd get divorced sooner!" says Monica, drawing the biggest laugh of the night.
She turns and high-fives another mom, who thinks she should've gotten divorced sooner as well, before the second mom goes on to explain the realities of it — how devastating such a thing would've been to the kids at the time, or the financial turmoil it would've caused.
Yeah, I guess life has no do-overs. You trust your gut, follow the trends, read to the kids, join club soccer, sign up for every single sport.
You immerse yourself in your children — drive 'em everywhere, juggle schedules, buy in to their interests, sacrifice your mortal soul, then laugh at yourself and move on.
To life's next chapter. And the quiet refuge of a really good book.