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Turning children into lifelong readers: All it takes is you.

December 9, 2010

Amy Dickenson

Amy Dickinson, the advice columnist known as “Ask Amy,” has launched a campaign to give books to a million children this Christmas — thereby providing a handy excuse to trot out my one perennial column, “The Ten Commandments Of How to Turn Your Kids into Lifelong Readers.”

Dickinson calls her campaign “A Book on Every Bed,” and it’s the soul of simplicity. “Take a book. Wrap it. Place it on a child’s bed so it’s the first thing she sees on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday you celebrate). That’s it.” The book, she emphasizes, does not have to be new. It just has to be a children’s book.

The part I like best about Dickinson’s appeal is her emphasis on parents and children reading together. It’s Number 9 in my “10 Commandments,” but it’s probably the most important thing you can do.

Because there’s good news and bad news about helping your kids become lifelong readers.

The good news: It’s a reachable goal. The not so good news: It’s all on you, the parent.

It’s most definitely not the responsibility of the schools. The proper role of schools is to teach children how to read. Making them into readers is the work of parents.

I concocted my “10 Commandments” in 2007 after two decades as a book reviewer, during which I raised three daughters to voluntarily literate adulthood. In other words, they all read still, by choice and for pleasure, despite the distractions of TV, video games, social media, smart phones and the pressures of making a living in an ailing economy.

I’m not going to burden you with the entire original essay, which you can find here if you have world enough and time, but I will add that the crux of my argument is that reading is good for nothing but pleasure of the most solitary, selfish and hedonistic kind.

The instant we convey to children the notion that reading is good for them, like broccoli or cleaning their rooms or memorizing the multiplication table, we lose them forever as voluntary readers. Or, as the literacy campaign of my own childhood had it, “Reading is fun(damental).”

Oh, one last thing: My original column elicited a thoughtful response from a 15-year-old named Linnea Marik, who chided me for restricting the use of alternative entertainment and leaving kids with books as their only choice of diversion. She argued such a tactic would cause many children to rebel and hate reading.

She has a point, especially when she writes of her own experience.  But in reading her perceptive comment, the most important point that emerges is that she had a deeply engaged mother. Her mother allowed some electronic entertainments, and Linnea grew to become a book lover.

So let me clarify that these suggestions are most effective when children are small, and they can only be implemented by a parent. By the time a child is Linnea’s age, you’ve either helped her become a reader or you haven’t.


1. Do not buy your children portable DVD players. This may give you some peace, but at tremendous cost to your children.

2. Do not buy a car or SUV with DVD players in the back seat. I attribute the friendly relationship I have with my grown children to the road trips we took to grandma’s house in Virginia several times each year. The conversation and storytelling and singing we did to while away the miles was critical in developing the fondness we share today.

3. Do not allow television sets in your children’s bedrooms.
Monitor not only what they watch, but the number of hours they spend with the idiot box. I suggest one hour per day.

4. Do not allow computers in your children’s bedrooms.
Place all computers in common areas where you can monitor their usage.

5. Do not allow phones in your children’s bedrooms before they are 14 or so. Do not allow them to take cell phones into their bedrooms.

6. Fill your surroundings with books, newspapers, and magazines, and let yourself be seen reading every day.
You are the most influential person your children will ever know. They will imitate what you do. Rebellious periods come and go, but your children will model your behavior FOR LIFE.

7. Provide your children with books before they can even talk. Board books make great teething tools. Don’t get upset if your toddler pulls all the books off lower shelves and climbs into the book case and starts laughing at you, as my oldest loved to do when she was about 9 months old.

8. Provide your children with age-appropriate books at each stage of their development, but don’t worry so much about this that it becomes noticeable. It is good for children to read scary books, because it takes their natural fears – fear of abandonment, fear of being eaten – and externalizes them into stories. That’s why much great children’s literature, from the Grimm fairy tales to Roald Dahl (my middle daughter’s favorite) to portions of the Harry Potter books, can seem too strong to misguided adults.

9. Read to your children every day until they are able to read to themselves. THEN CONTINUE TO READ TO OR WITH THEM AT LEAST UNTIL THEY REACH MIDDLE SCHOOL.
The importance of this rule cannot be overstated. Pick fun books, adventure books, mysteries, fantasy. Treasure Island worked great for my daughters. So did the Little House on the Prairie series. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Yearling. Old Yeller, the juvenile sci-fi of Robert Heinlein, Anne of Green Gables. This will not only reiterate in your children’s minds the joy of reading, it will also redouble their love for you.

10. Maintain an interest in what your children are reading.
Ask them about it, talk about ideas they’ve come across, why they did or didn’t like a book. One of the best conversations of this kind with my oldest daughter came after she read Alas, Babylon, which she hated.

10(a). Guide your children’s reading, but don’t censor it except in extreme cases, and I can’t think of one off the top of my head. My dad once tried to make me stop reading Dracula because he though it was inappropriate for a 12-year-old. I rolled my eyes and ignored him. By middle school, children are, from a reading perspective, essentially adults. You can no longer protect them, you can only harm them by being overly protective.

Let me repeat: This is not a scientific list. Please feel free to correct me, or to offer your own suggestions. I’m especially interested in hearing from other parents who have successfully raised readers.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2010 1:23 pm

    “Reading is the gateway to your dreams. Everything you do or dream of doing in life comes through reading.” ——– Michael John McCann

    I have been promoting this for years now. I am glad for everything you write on this subject. I am also glad what Amy is doing. It is awful lonely out here . I have a book that is an interaction book between children, parents and adults. It is getting stunningly great reviews from childhood educators and more. Start early. Great job Chauncey. I feel warmer now.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 2:48 pm

      Thanks, Mike.

  2. December 9, 2010 2:05 pm

    Great post, Chauncey, and I agree with everything except your idea that the responsibility of schools is merely to teach kids how to read rather than ignite the joy of reading itself.

    I had a pretty itinerant childhood — single overworked mom and weekend dad. They tried hard (remember the Childcraft books?), but there was no real consistent model. Whenver we pulled up stakes, I floundered in the new school but did manage to find the local library to hide out in. But I am absolutely convinced that my love of books sprang from one elementary school teacher who, every Friday, read to us from Laura Ingall Wilder’s books. I wish I knew who she was so I could write and thank her because she was the one who made magic for me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 2:52 pm

      That’s a great story, Chris. I had teachers who read stories and novels to us, too, and it reinforced the joy of reading. I’m emphasizing parental involvement here for three reasons: 1) It really is true that the most important influence in a child’s life — by far — is the parents; 2) we can’t expect schools and teachers to do everything (no wonder some parents are waiting for Superman; 3) I cannot tell you how annoyed I get when I see parents of small children set them up in a restaurant with their little DVD players. As the twig is bent, sew the wind and all that: Ignore your children now, and I guarantee they will ignore you when you’re old and need them most.

  3. John Karwacki permalink
    December 9, 2010 3:59 pm

    Love, love, love your list, Chauncey. I think we did all of these except for #4 and #5 with the advent of laptops and cellphones, those two went out the window. All three of my kids are avid readers and I am glad to take the blame.
    My middle child got off a plane today, home from college for Christmas, my second question, “what are you reading?” – pointing at the book in her hand. “Woman In the Mist” a Jane Goodall Biography, not exactly my fare, but to each her own.
    If I were to add a #11 to your list, I would say – day trips to the library.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 10:38 pm

      And the bookstore. To this day, my kids — young women now — can lose themselves for hours in a good bookstore. When we travel together, local bookstores are on the sightseeing list, as well as other literary landmarks. In Baltimore, for example, we’ve visited the Poe grave, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Mencken house still awaits.

  4. Connie permalink
    December 9, 2010 7:32 pm

    I love this post so much I wish I’d had kids so I could try it out on them. Every thing you listed here, my parents did for me. It’s why I love to read so much. For the record… I still don’t have a TV in my bedroom.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 10:42 pm

      Thanks, Connie. That means a good deal coming from you. I’m not surprised to learn you had parents who knew how to foster a reader. Needless to say I don’t have a TV in my bedroom, either. Two of my children don’t even have TVs anymore, but I haven’t quite reached that level of discipline or commitment. I mean, Opening Day is only, what, five months away?

  5. Betsy permalink
    December 9, 2010 8:27 pm

    My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Koopman, read “Cricket in Time Square” and “Ralph Mouse” as well as other Beverly Cleary books to us aloud.
    She was magical and I wish I knew where this S. FL teacher was so I could thank her.
    I worked in the children’s area of a Book Store. It was there I was introduced to R.L Stine and Captain Underwear. Later, when my son came along I was so thrilled to read Captain Underwear with him as my husband looked on in horror. I knew it was key to some boy readers to discuss bodily noises in order to keep their interests.
    Now my 6th grader is reading Rick Riordon (big, thick books!!) by request.
    History is repeating itself with his awesome teacher who I wish I knew how to nominate for an award and a truckload of cash!
    I look forward to helping other kids read in the future.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 10:45 pm

      Those are great stories, Betsy. Congratulations on doing so well with your son. Supposedly boys are harder, when it comes to reading. I wouldn’t know, having fathered only daughters. Myself, I’m a boy, but I took to reading the second day of first grade, when the teacher took us to the library and I found a book on dinosaurs. Thanks for sharing.

  6. December 9, 2010 10:02 pm

    Reading almost literally saved my life. I was a dud at everything except reading. It was my escape and early on broadened my horizons (sorry for that cliche but it’s true) and gave skinny little nothing me WORLDS to reach for. I surrounded my two children with boooks everywhere – living room, sitting room, bedrooms – they couldn’t get away from books. I didn’t force them to read, but they are both addicted adults now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. By example we teach them, Chauncey. By example and easy access. I love this blog. I love everything it says.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2010 11:04 pm

      More proof, ladies and gentleman! Another testimonial from a lifelong reader and No. 1 Dad! Thanks, Duff. It seems like the most natural thing, doesn’t it? Have a lot of books in the house, let kids see you reading, and read with them. I daresay it works in 100 percent of the cases in which parents actually try it.

  7. Connie permalink
    December 10, 2010 7:57 am

    I was glad to see you had “let your kids see you reading” on here. A couple summers ago, my nephew, around 11 at the time, was staying with me for the weekend. I had to finish reading “Time Traveler’s Wife” before I saw the movie. So on Sunday afternoon we were just hanging out, and I said, I’m going to sit outside and read, you can swim or watch a movie or play your video games or whatever, and he said: Can I come read with you? He’d been lugging around the sixth Harry Potter book and struggling with it (frankly, I’m no fan of The Half Blood Prince either, so I didn’t blame him.). So we sat on the deck and read for a couple of hours. We both finished our books and celebrated with pizza.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2010 11:31 am

      That story makes me smile. Thanks, Connie.

  8. Connie permalink
    December 11, 2010 10:14 am

    Then you’ll like this even more: his father has indoctrinated him in the world of fantasy and sci fi and the last time he was visiting he was carrying around books by Lovecraft!

  9. April 28, 2014 10:03 pm

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    viewers, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

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