October 14, 2009

Getting Kids To Read

Filed under: Kids and Life — jenny @ 8:24 pm

When my daughter was two years old, my father took care of her on Mondays when I saw psychotherapy patients. I remember coming home one time and asking how the day went.

“It’s amazing how tiring it is,” my dad said, “to read all day.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. I was home the other four days of the week, pregnant with our second, and sitting in the nursing rocker and reading story books just about fit my energy level. There were days we read for six or more hours, stopping only to eat (both of us) and nap (also both of us).

Now my daughter is six and no matter where she is, if I start to read, she will stop everything and become transfixed. She’s not a kid who melts down very often, but reading stops her cold when she does. (And when I am in Good Enough Mom mode to use this tactic as opposed to pleading, yelling, and frowning my fool face off.)

She likes everything from THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO to those illustrated story books of her babyhood. Right now we’re reading THE SECRET GARDEN and she is rapt. We’ve gotten up to book six in the LITTLE HOUSE series. Only Laura’s age stopped us–she likes characters she feels akin to. The old Carolyn Haywood series turned out to be pure magic.

Now, because I’m a writer and a voracious reader myself, I might chalk this up to some weird encoded thing and think, Isn’t genetics cool.

But my son is as different a kid as you could hope to see. He loves cars and gadgets and fixing things. He watches the world and notes his observations; my daughter lives in a dream state and narrates it.

But my son adores reading as well. If bedtime is too late for a “tory” he cries. His books differ–they have pictures of vehicles and he would enjoy an airplane manual if I could get my hands on one. But in terms of enjoying the written word, or at his age, I should say, hearing text, he is an ardent fan.

How did this happen? Is it because the kids’ dad and I read all the time? Because books fill our house, threatening to overturn, forming a bulk of what’s in the kids’ rooms? Because I read so much to them?

Is it purely genetics after all? Or environment? Or both?

Then there is the question of how a book loving child will fare in the world he or she inherits.

I hope and pray that my kids will always have books to fill their lives, that their children’s children’s children will. I hope that if this passion grows and evolves and morphs in ways we cannot predict at this point, one thing will remain always needful in our world: a love of story.

I believe that humans need story the same way we need water and breath. It’s why we gossip, and chatter, and rubberneck at the scene of calamity.

But on my more despairing days, I worry that I am passing on a love for a dying beast.

What about you? Are your kids readers? Do you feel you made them so, or is a reader simply born? Either way, do you feel a love of reading to be a good thing in a child?

I hope so. That daughter I started this piece with? When she grows up she wants to be a book seller.


  1. Loved this post, Jenny! It resonates with me.

    Both of my kids are readers. I’ve been a reader since I was three, and I am not happy unless I have a stack of books next to my bedside. They often beckon when it’s not a good time — like now, while I’m in the middle of revisions, but I always need to know one is there, waiting for me.

    My younger daughter is the same way. She needs to have a book waiting for her at the end of the day, or to read when she is between activities. She runs through her books as though someone is chasing her, and I am always thrilled when she hands me back what I’ve selected out of the library for her and begs for more.

    My older daughter is also a reader, though she is very selective and often rejects books I choose for her. She would rather choose them herself. She prefers her computer right now, but since she is fifteen, I think that’s a phase.

    I’m really proud to have reading kids. :)

    Comment by Judy — October 14, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  2. You should be proud, Judy! Especially in this texting/gaming/tweeting age…

    Comment by jenny — October 14, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  3. I have to say, I don’t know if I would have survived childhood or young-adulthood without reading. It really was, and continues to be, a true means of escape for me (perhaps a reason why I dislike unhappy endings).

    My six year old just began reading chapter books on her own; I was thrilled when she chose James and the Giant Peach because I had told her it was one of my favorites when I was young. I hope she has a little easier time of it than I did growing up, but I also hope she finds the same refuge in reading when things are difficult.

    Comment by Susan — October 14, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  4. Oh, man, we ALL hope they have an easier time of it than we did, right?

    Or do we? (This will be the subject of an article that will hopefully be appearing in a favorite parenting mag of mine next spring. I will keep loyal blog readers posted!)

    Comment by jenny — October 14, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  5. People who extol the virtues of kindle and predict that reading text on a real page will become obsolete are the same folks who stop shopping at their local independently owned bookstore when Barnes and Nobles comes into town. They stop buying groceries at the neighborhood grocery store when Costco moves in. Those of us who read wherever and whenever we can (even if its just a few stolen minutes before a business meeting or behind the locked bathroom door, hiding from screaming kids)somehow transfer this love of reading to our kids. Both of mine are voracious readers. If my son misbehaved, we threatened him with less books at night and it was the ONLY thing that stopped the behavior…My three year old daughter informs me that shes picking out our night reading as she piles her books into little stacks on the floor in the early morning before the sun rises. If we are told to model good communication skills, healthy relationships and smart food choices, why would we think that modeling great reading habits wouldnt have an impact?

    Comment by rebecca davis-suskind — October 15, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  6. I’m happy to say that I’ve been reading to my son since he could focus on pictures! (at least I think he could) Our book choices have evolved and so has our routine, but we still read on a daily/nightly basis. My feeling is that the more we do read to our kids, the more they appreciate it and ask for it. I am guilty of letting my son watch too much television (on most days) but I’m happy that he has a balance which includes loving a story.

    When my sister and I were little, my dad got into a habit of telling us made-up stories EVERY night! We came to know the characters and asked for his stories to include them. Fortunately, my dad has continued this tradition with my son (though not on a nightly basis, of course!) and I’ve learned to tell a tale or two as well. Each night, after we read an actual book, I am asked to “tell” a story as well. When I look into my son’s eyes as I tell the stories, I am so impressed with how absorbed into the story he gets. I am happy to say that I think he will grow up a reader!

    Comment by Mandy Patrick — October 15, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  7. Sadly, I don’t think you can always predict behavior. I had two non-reading parents and two non-reading brothers, and I turned out obsessed with books (I used to sneak out of 3rd grade math to go read). I raised my son with books, reading, reading, reading. I remember reading a Harry Potter book out loud to my husband and having Guy, at the age of only two, go still for about an hour to listen to words he couldn’t even understand. Still, he has turned into a non-reader. I’ve gone out of my way to get books he will like, but he on his own will not seek out books. He complains about having to do book reports. But who knows? Maybe compared to “average” kids, he is a reader. He certainly never watched Ben-10 or Jimmy Neutron or other crap of kids his age.

    I hope my daughter will turn into a reader. Right now she knows the word ‘book’ and will shove a book in my face until I read it to her, LOL

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — October 15, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  8. Wow, I am so psyched to hear about all these avid readers! I still credit my story telling, Mandy, to my mom telling Benjy stories whenever I had something going on, to work through, whatever, when I was little. Took me FOREVER to figure out that Benjy always was dealing the same issue I was ;) You should write a few of yours (and your dad’s maybe) down…

    Comment by jenny — October 15, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  9. Hi Jenny,

    I suppose it’s the “Kids learn what they live” thing. When my daughter, our 4th child, told me one day she “didn’t like to read” I had to double-check to make sure they hadn’t switched babies in the hospital. Then I said,
    “Okay, we’re going to deal with this.” She was about 7 or 8 years old. That summer we spent every available hour lying in the hammock with me reading to her. Can’t remember exactly what, but The Secret Garden was a favorite. When she was in the 6th grade she was the only kid in her class that could identify Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. (Mother was proud.)

    I’ve read that one key to raising readers is for the father to read to them. We were fortunate on that score, too. Now we’re grandparents and our kids still talk about some of the books Dad read to us.

    Donna Fletcher Crow

    Comment by Donna Fletcher Crow — October 15, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  10. All three of my kids love books but some more than others. I have to say I don’t think it is genetic I think it is a learned behavior. Well, what I am going to say might contradict that. I have read to each of my children every day since they were about 2 months old. Books have been an important part of our every day life. My first child- James absolutely loves books. He always did and to this day he reads to himself every night and is a grade to 2 grades ahead of himself in reading. Now, my second child, Kaitlyn- likes books but it isn’t her favorite thing to do. I have purchased or borrowed ones that interest her but She would rather play with dolls or color than read. However, since she started kindergarten she is starting to read and is excited to grab a book and try to read to me. So- there is hope!:) I do see a desire and interest. Maybe I need help in what I am choosing for her. My third child- Liam loves books just as much as James did at this age. He will go up to his room on his own and pick several books and look at them. Each child has a library of books in their room as well as in their playroom. I just find it interesting that 2 out of the 3 really enjoy it and 1 is just starting to enjoy it.

    Comment by Lynda — October 15, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  11. I find it fascinating, too, Lynda–the differences between the kids. I bet some of them do take to it later and sooner. The genetic thing strikes me maybe more for writing than reading–Sophie seems to be a natural storyteller.

    Comment by jenny — October 15, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

  12. Both my kids love to listen and it seems to relax them when things are getting out of control… my daughter is now become obsessed with learning to read…I don’t know… I think we point our kids in the right direction and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Love the blog…keep going!:)

    Comment by Christina Buckley — October 15, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  13. I swear my kids were reading in utero. I don’t recall ever ‘teaching’ them, and they could read by the time they started school. We always read — when my son was an infant, Daddy would come home and sit him on his lap and “turn pages” — didn’t matter that it was a scientific journal; it was bonding over books. We let them ‘stay up late’ if they’d go to bed and read (after we read to them, of course).

    One still devours books. The others are still readers, but not on any prolific scale.

    Comment by Terry Odell — October 19, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  14. I have five readers and I was trying to think of what went into getting them to read. The youngest is now 8. Mostly reading in our house is one of the most important things, from birth they see us reading, and time really must stop when mom is on the last chapter of a good book. Reading is as important as all the other things that kids learn to take for granted like toothbrushing, showering, eating. So I am thinking since it has such a prominent place in our lives it just happens without question. There have been times when I have to encourage reading a little, but usually I have encouraged it with “awarding” things that lead to more reading. For example, you finish that book, we get to take a trip to the book store and you get to pick another book all by yourself. I also do not believe in censoring reading, mostly I feel if a child can read a book and it’s an area they are interested in they should read it. I have found if a subject is “too grown up” they don’t stick with it. There have been a couple of exceptions where I have told the kids, “if you read this we are going to be talking about it.” If it is something embarrassing they don’t want to talk to their mom about that usually does the trick.

    Comment by Grainne Rhuad — October 19, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  15. Sorry, I missed a couple of terrific comments! I love Donna’s hands-on approach to the terrifying prospect of a child who didn’t enjoy reading! And her daughter’s expertise with sleuths was indeed something to be proud of ;) The dad factor is interesting–my dad didn’t read aloud to me much in my recollection (although clearly that changed with the grandkids) but one of my prevailing memories is of him giving me meaty, challenging, wondrous reading material–Andre Gide’s STRAIGHT IS THE GATE at like eight, and Jane Eyre, stuff I didn’t fully understand but that really infected me (in a good way).

    I agree with Rebecca’s connection to the demise of local shopping. In fact, she motivated me to make a vow I’ll share with you all here: I’m not shopping at Amazon anymore unless one of the two indies within a half hour drive can’t order something for me. Amazon is easy but they’re not about what I love…a store of books to browse in. I’ve known for a long time I should do this, but I fell down, as Rebecca describes, on the follow through.

    Christina, Terry, and Grainne, thanks so much for commenting…and for the little readers you raised/are raising! I love the idea of it being used to soothe children. From prolific to just a part of one’s life…it’s all good!

    As for Grainne’s embarrassing approach…you made me recall something else. Quite embarrassing but I don’t see too many men here at the moment, so…when I was twelve I wanted to read FOREVER by Judy Blume. Since the library required a parental ok, which my mom willingly gave–after all, I was the kid who’d already read SYBIL, my mother decided to read it along with me! Oy. I didn’t understand half that book at the time (hey, we were innocent at twelve in 1981!) and I still remember my mother referring to “Ralph.”

    Comment by jenny — October 23, 2009 @ 8:14 am

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