Turning children into lifelong readers: All it takes is you.
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.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF HOW TO TURN YOUR KIDS INTO LIFELONG READERS
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.