My boys last summer, reading in the yard.
The reminders are everywhere this time of year, and have been for a while. Amazon and Scholastic are sending me emails with book lists for my children. Pinterest is full of summer reading posts. The local librarian has visited my oldest’s classroom, encouraging the kids to sign up for summer reading, dangling the carrot of performances and prizes if they’d just, you know, read. I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of these programs, but you won’t convince me. I don’t believe in bribing kids to read. I am wary of extrinsic motivators, and I want—and have—children who read for reading’s sake. I’ve been told that some kids just won’t read all summer without summer reading programs, and while that may be true, summer reading is not solving a problem here. It’s a cosmetic fix for a deeper, underlying problem that isn’t being addressed. Why don’t these kids want to read to begin with?
I have two areas of parenting where I’ve nailed it (yes, only two). All of my kids love books and reading, and they all eat a variety of foods. As I thought about this, I realized that these areas are where my intent, priorities, and desired outcome are completely aligned. We have a hard time, for example, explaining to our kids that they shouldn’t swear when both their parents have a bit of a potty mouth. Until I change my own behavior, all the explanations in the world aren’t going to have an effect. However, I don’t eat cookies while asking my kids to eat an apple; because I value healthy eating and sweets in moderation, they naturally followed my lead. I don’t stare at a TV screen while telling my kids to read a book, either. I have my nose in my own book, thank you very much. Sometimes I’m asked how I “get” my kids to read, and this is my long response to that question.
I began taking my kids to the library in their infancy. Yes, even my firstborn. I spent hours trapped under a sleeping baby who’d awaken if I tried to slip away. I needed books, lots of books, to pass the time, so the baby and I went to the library. As more babies came, they were brought to the library too, and now all of us pick out so many books combined that certain librarians duck when they see us coming. From the beginning I instituted the Mama-First Rule: Mama gets to pick out books first, and then (and only then) will we go to the kids’ section. It’s like putting on my oxygen tank first. Now, of course, I have some kids old enough to wander off by themselves to pick out books anyway. The library, in other words, is a regular part of our life and routine and always has been.
I also began reading aloud to my kids in infancy. My oldest would sit and listen for as long as my voice held out. He was (and is) a placid child. By age two he was listening to chapter books, and at age four he could repeat, word for word, his favorite stories—including The Polar Express, which is quite a long one. I thought he’d be an early reader, but it didn’t click for him until he was seven. He was homeschooled at the time, and he was allowed to learn to read without any external pressures whatsoever. By the time he started school in second grade he was reading well ahead of grade level.
Younger siblings, of course, hear read-alouds from the very beginning. My second child wouldn’t sit still and listen like his brother. He’d squirm off the couch and onto the floor, where he’d busily play. He was a mover. No matter; I knew he was listening. When my oldest began to read on his own, I didn’t stop reading out loud (of course, I had two non-readers at the time, too). Books are part of the activity choice in our house along with toys and other playthings, and were not reserved just for bedtime stories. I read in the morning, the afternoon, and evening. When both my boys were in school, my daughter and I would see the bus off and then come inside to read. I’d sit with my coffee and the stack of books she’d selected and sometimes read for an hour or more before we continued with our day.
My middle child was in school during his learning-to-read process. At the first parent/teacher conference, I told his kindergarten teacher that I didn’t care if he was reading by the end of kindergarten and, in fact, didn’t expect him to be. (This, I was told, was not the normal parent statement about reading in K.) I didn’t want reading to turn into a source of anxiety or pressure. By the beginning of second grade he could read, somewhat laboriously, but it hadn’t clicked for him yet. In the meantime, I told his teacher that I would not be having him fill out a book log, because such a thing made reading a chore. (Have you ever written down everything you’ve read? So boring.) It also reinforced the idea that he should read because school says so and not because he wanted to. Knowing my son’s oppositional nature, I felt there was a risk he’d simply rebel against reading if he felt it wasn’t his decision. No book logs for us. My job was to run interference while my child got his reading feet under him. By mid-second grade, reading had clicked for him, and by the end, he, too, was reading beyond grade level. Still, when we began homeschooling, I continued the morning routine of reading books aloud, now with two kids instead of one. Just because a child can read to himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy cuddling up and hearing stories read out loud.
So how did I end up with kids who love reading? I take them to the library and always have. I read aloud, early, often, and even when they can read to themselves. I read books myself, where the kids can see me. I occasionally ignore them because the book is really good. I pick out books for myself at the library. I make sure they are allowed to learn to read at their own pace and without externally imposed pressure, anxiety, or stress. I don’t judge their reading material. Both boys take out books below their reading level along with harder books. I simply remind them to make sure they bring home some longer books, too, because otherwise they finish all their books too soon and I have two kids moping around the house complaining, “I’m out of book.” They love graphic novels and read them again and again. I suggest books I think they might like, I find books they’ve requested, I give books as presents, I provide magazine subscriptions. I thoroughly support their reading habit, as I support my own.
So there is no quick-results answer I can give when someone asks me, “How did you get your kids to read?” It’s a lifestyle; it reflects what’s important to me. These readers of mine are the product of the sum total of my time as a mother; getting a kid to value reading isn’t a quick summer project involving McDonald’s coupons and a magician at the library. Of course, there are outliers. There are people who love to read who grew up in bookless homes, and kids who don’t read at all whose book-loving parents are mystified. But in general, results begin with what you value and where you put your time, which is why my kids love to read and often ask for apples for a snack. They didn’t learn to read because I sat down and made it a chore, and they don’t read now to earn prizes at the library. They read because books take them to different places, different times, different universes, carried along on the wave of a fantastic story. They read for reading’s sake.