Raising a Reader

dad reading book to son

My children are avid readers. Okay, they’re grown and are not under my supervision any longer. I’m not actively promoting this addiction, ahem, I mean, worthy pursuit. But, the love of reading sprang out of childhood habits. I confess, when I’m asked how did I, as a mom, encourage reading, I’m tempted to shrug my shoulders.

I come from a family of readers, so this tendency of ours to plant our noses in paperbacks is not so bizarre. But out of courtesy to those who are trying to instill the same “need to read” in their kids, I’m going to take a stab at answering the question, “How do I get my child to read?”

The best way to answer that question is to ask others. Let’s look at four basic questions: who, when, where, why.

Who in Your Family Reads?

Ideally, the answer is everybody. But most families have at least one holdout who would rather dribble a basketball or paint her toenails or tinker in the garage. If lack of literacy is a concern for parents (and really, folks, thirst for knowledge or entertainment through print should be a crucial goal in every family), then both parents should exhibit a united front.

Mom and Dad must demonstrate an appreciation of reading by reading where kids can see them reading. And the adults need to express their enjoyment of the exercise. If you read the stock market reports, scream, and tear up the paper, your child may not be getting the proper picture of how much reading fulfills your needs and brings satisfaction. If you are reluctant to put down a good book, the same child will wonder what is so intriguing on those pages.

Strategy: Read a book. Enjoy the book. Do this where your child will observe your activity and your obvious pleasure. Think about Bob, played by Bill Murphey, in What About Bob? Remember his manifest delight in eating his hostess’s dinner. Yum, mmmm, smack, uhm, awww.

Get excited over going to the library. Display your stack of books with pride. And . . . vocally, dramatically, reward yourself with a new book via an exuberant visit to a giant bookstore or a quaint, old bookshop. (“Breathe deeply, children. Do you smell the knowledge of a hundred years?”)

Okay, so you aren’t really going to be quite this hammy when you present reading as a preferred lifestyle choice. But you get the idea: be a role model of the dedicated reader.

When Do the People in Your Family Read?

This one is a bit tricky in our present culture. Busy schedules and interest in videos, computer games, and all that high-tech stuff rob us of hours of productive time. (Raising hand, here. I’m guilty of playing computer solitaire for hours.)

Strategy: Have an electricity-free night once or twice a week. The only thing the members of your family are allowed to turn on is a light bulb. It’s a read-to-yourself or be-read-to free-for-all. Make sure the fam arms itself appropriately, because you can’t pop popcorn after the “begin” signal, and no one can open the fridge to get a snack.

There’s also the old earn-time-on-the-computer or Nintendo™ strategy by reading. Five minutes of reading=five minutes of tech fun.

Have a goal chart of how many minutes read by the whole family. Accumulate enough points for a night out at the most motivating place you can afford. Or make it for ice cream at home. Whoever has the most points for the week gets to choose the flavor of the week.

kids reading a book together

Where Do You Read?

I love this question because I see ole Brer Rabbit hopping along a country road, singing, “Everybody’s got a laughing place.” Let’s stick a book under his arm and change laughing to reading. Choosing a reading place may be as simple as a reading lamp and a soft chair. But making tents, nests of pillows, or taking a flashlight into the closet may be more fun for the reluctant reader. However, put a limit on the amount of time spent on “settling.” There are some reluctant readers who will gladly spend hours constructing a three-level tent.

Strategy: Brainstorm ideas about where to read, including what would be a safe place and what would be dangerous. If you choose to make a game of it, everyone hides in their reading place. (Mom or Dad knows where each reader is.) After a designated time, Mom or Dad chooses one reader to go find all the others. Sometimes you can rotate around the house into various reading spots. Take pictures. Have a contest: most comfortable, worst idea, most quiet place, least used, most used, smelliest . . .

And now we come to why.

Why Do We Read?

You’ve got to get beyond “Because I said so,” “Because it’s good for you,” and “Because you’ll learn something.”

Who in the world jumps into something because some authority figure makes this vague assertion that it’s good for you and you’ll learn something? Not me. Doctor says dieting is good for you. I’m not buying that! My kids invite me to a rock concert because I’ll learn something. No way!

So how do you impress the whys and the wherefores on the younger generation? I’m afraid this goes back to our first example. You have to model why.

You look through a recipe book, reading to find a yummy new mealtime concoction. You study a gardening book to find the best flower for that shady spot next to the fence. Of course, reading is a significant part of your day. But are the kids aware? Make sure they make eye contact with the image of you, the parent, with a book in hand.

Here comes the killer: you TALK about the fiction you read. Do you tell stories at the dinner table about things that have happened? Include the things that happened to the characters in the book you are reading.

“Mr. Miller came into work late today. He had a flat tire on the Trumbleridge overpass.” Yeah, that happened.

“George Mueller prayed for breakfast for his orphanage, and a milk wagon turned over practically at the front door” True, it happened. A long time ago, but just yesterday in the book the reader was enjoying.

“A ghost came into his bedroom and took him to a Christmas he’d experienced as a child.” Happened in a book, of course. But when you announce this “fact” at the dinner table with the same legitimacy as the account of Miller and Mueller, you validate the worth of fiction. You open a discussion.

Experience teaches. Experience, whether in person or through vicarious reading, teaches. That’s a good thing. It means I don’t have to journey to the center of the earth and get blown out a volcano to learn something about interpersonal relationships.

Strategy: Occasionally change the “What did you do today?” question into “What did the character in your book do today?”

If your child is really into a book or book series, try dressing or eating or living like a character from the book for several hours. Do charades of familiar books. Write a letter to a character and enlist someone to answer (Grandma?) as the character.

I mulled over our question quite a bit. What did I do to get my children to read? The truth is I wasn’t thinking about strategies and incentives. I assumed my kids would like to read because I love to read.

· Talking about Lobel’s Frog and Toad as if we might run into them in the backyard,

· taking a book with me to read in the doctor’s waiting room,

· making a special trip to the library when notified that my “hold” title had come in,

All these proofs of my love of reading came naturally. Trying to create a healthy attitude toward reading is like any other influence we try to exert over our children. They are more likely to take walks if we take walks. They are more likely to eat vegetables if we eat vegetables. They are more likely to speak respectfully if we speak respectfully.

My best advice for creating avid readers is to be an avid reader.

About the Author:

Donita K. Paul is the author of the best-selling DragonKeeper Chronicles series. Her newest book, The Vanishing Sculptor, is available June 2 from WaterBrook Press. She lives in Colorado Springs, CO, where she spends her time mentoring and encouraging young writers.