Raising Your Kids to Be Lifelong Readers


IMG_1996When I was a kid, I would rather read than do just about anything else. (The same is pretty much true for my adult self.) Many of my childhood memories involve books. I remember slumber parties with an elementary school friend in which the main event was to pick out the books we would then spend the rest of the night reading. I would often combine tasks with reading–and not necessarily tasks that were overtly reading-compatible. Most memorably, I would read while riding my bike around the neighborhood. One time I swear I rode down the large hill by my house carrying my miniature dachshund under my left arm, reading a book that was in my left hand, and steering with my right hand.

(Although I would not actually recommend this practice, I do sometimes wonder if my extreme childhood reading was actually a form of sports training for today’s world in which everyone seems to walk around reading or texting on their phones. Maybe someday we readers will have our own spot in the X Games.)

I’m pretty sure that I don’t want my children to ride their bikes with our dog and a book in hand, but I do want them to be readers. And although they are likely genetically inclined in that direction, here are some practices that have helped them to love books.

1. Read to them. (And enjoy it!)

Reading to your kids every day sounds obvious, but it’s not always appealing. Some days I just want to do something else, like finish the dishes or take a nap or read my own book. For those days when you’re just not feeling it, fake enthusiasm. Yes, fake it. Here’s why. Study after study has shown that just putting a smile on your face actually makes you feel happier, so feigning enthusiasm for reading can actually help generate this enthusiasm. (My favorite rationale for faking it in life comes from Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, where C. S. Lewis advises us literally to pretend to be like Christ so that Christ can come alongside us and turn our pretenses into reality.)

When it comes to reading to your children, if you are excited or even just act excited about it and show this enthusiasm by reading with expression, even character voices if you are so inclined, they will be excited too. And as a side effect you’ll find yourself enjoying it. Kid excitement, like so many kid things, is extremely contagious. Something else I do with my older son is choose books to read together that I enjoyed when I was a child, such as the works of Roald Dahl. When we’re tearing through The BFG, I’m often the one saying,”ÓK, just one more chapter.”

2. Take them to the library.

I’m a big fan of the library, but wow, it’s amazing how much my kids love to go there. Our library has some cool extras, like a play ship and a huge telescope, but the main attraction for my boys is still the books. Books everywhere! It must seem to them like a gigantic store filled with free stuff. (Actually, that’s sort of what it is.) And they get to select pretty much any one they want and take it home for a couple of weeks. Both of my sons love picking out a big pile of books from this huge book buffet. Then they can hardly wait to get home and look through them all.

A library trip is also a great way to (safely) encourage any new interests. For example, here’s a conversation we just had in my house:

“Oh, you want to learn more about black and brown widow spiders? And you’ve already found and captured several brown widow spiders by poking around with sticks in our backyard? Here’s a thought… How about instead let’s go get a book about spiders from the library?”

3. Let them see you reading.

Have you read about that study that shows a strong correlation between a students’ academic achievement and the amount of books their parents own? According to the study, just the physical presence of those books makes a difference. Well, fine. But in my experience, most people who have books on their bookshelves actually read them. And when your kids see you reading and enjoying it, even choosing to do it in your free time, then they can’t help but internalize that it’s an important (and fun!) thing to do.

4. Encourage them to do it on their own.

In addition to sitting and reading with my kids, I also encourage them to look at books by themselves. My older son can read now, but even toddlers can enjoy paging through a book with pictures. And it’s remarkable how early children can memorize and recite the words in their favorite picture books. (My younger son has a far better memory for this than I do. When I first noticed this phenomenon, I thought, Oh, that’s how the oral tradition survived for so long!)

I love to overhear my younger son “read” aloud some of his train books to himself. As is often the case with second children, he learned early on to entertain himself (probably because I wasn’t hovering above him and hanging on his every breath like I did with his poor older brother). Watching him, I wish I had encouraged my older son to do more looking through books on his own when he was a toddler.

5. Allow them the space to read.

 I often find this last one to be the hardest. It’s so tempting to fill up our days with play dates and classes and errands, but kids need down time too. Although I don’t always succeed, I try to give each of my boys a good amount of unstructured down time at home each day. And I also try to resist the urge to fill it up for them by telling them what to do or letting them turn it into screen time with the TV, computer, or my phone. When they have truly free time, they often gravitate toward books. I am always reminded of the Oompa Loompas’ comment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about what children did before TV: “Why, read of course!”

How do you encourage your children to read?

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