How To Turn Your Children Into Readers For Life
You may have seen the meme. Two mothers sit on a bench with their respective children. One mother is reading a book, and her kid is, too. The other pair is lost in their phones. The phone mom looks at the other woman and asks, “How do you get your child to read books?”
Obviously, we’d all like to be the parent whose kid reads. It’s like getting an achievement badge from the universe. We also enjoy hearing our kid request more vegetables or declare her love for math. It’s easy to want so many good things for our children that the pressure begins to numb our souls.
After all, no matter what we try, someone on Instagram is doing it so much better. Yet “raising readers” isn’t just another checkbox on some big societal list of things we should do so we can feel like good parents. It is instead an opportunity to live in a way that will free us from the tyranny of artificial parenting pressures. It is a way to not only make our children’s lives better but also our own.
Don’t Fall for a Misguided Image of ‘Readers’
In order to understand this, we must overcome a major hurdle. As a society we’ve absorbed a misguided image of what it means to be “a reader.” We often approach reading in two contradictory ways.
On the one hand, we rely on utilitarian rhetoric. We can’t shake the vague notion that books and reading are somehow inherently good; but we are uncomfortable with existential judgements. Who defines “good?” In national conversations it’s safer to point out how useful reading is. It teaches pre-literacy! It improves children’s grades in school! It helps reduce bullying! It boosts creativity and could lead to better science experiments!
Yet we also believe that reading is a sort of sacred experience that must be approached only as personal entertainment. If an individual likes a given book, then it is a good book—for that individual. Snobs can take their objective literary standards back to the last century because we moderns are busy passing out “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Actually, perhaps the two approaches are not contradictory. When reading is reduced to a statistically useful treadmill, it makes sense that staying aboard is all that matters. Every page is another step. No doubt that’s why libraries run so many contests based on the number of titles consumed.
The problem is that as children grow older, the statistical benefits of reading for pleasure become less clear-cut. It’s quite easy to raise “readers” who eventually find that screens are better at providing them utilitarian information and light entertainment.
This is a really, really bad thing, but it’s so normal it’s hard to realize how dangerous it is. A free country such as ours is dependent on the premise that the citizenry are capable of thinking in a certain way.
They must be able to hold large ideas in their minds. They must be able to recognize the differences between logic and propaganda. They must possess the self-discipline needed to focus on issues that are boring, and seek the wisdom to differentiate between what is right versus what is expedient or amusing. Most of all, they must possess the perspective of a true education in ideas so they can think outside the echo chamber of our era.
By the way, this isn’t simply a matter of politics and voting. It’s also a huge factor in the way our citizens treat each other in daily life. It directly affects the ways we filter parenting advice, judge or excuse other parents, and parent in a principled way instead of finding ourselves adrift on the waves of popular culture.
We All Need Each Other to Be Readers
All of this is deeply connected to what and how we read. It is not that people who use their phones frequently are necessarily dumber than people who don’t. Like any tool, though, screens can be dangerous. They can fill the spare moments of life until no time is left for thought and deep learning. They can retrain our brains and make it hard to focus on a long-form conversation, whether in-person or in print.
Books are one of the best ways to guard our minds against a misuse of screens. Books aren’t magical mind-vitamins, of course. Yet in order to cultivate the ability to think, we must engage with good, wise, and true thoughts. And it happens that the works of humanity’s greatest thinkers are found in books.
Books liberate us from the isolation of our 2019 bubble. The beautiful thing is that they are also tremendously helpful at helping us to develop the attention span we need to think deeply.
Books have an especial claim on those of us who are Christians. Ours is a visual age, but the God of the Bible works through the medium of words. Yes, faith is a gift from God rather than a result of human scholarship; but at the same time, the church has always recognized the necessity of preserving and studying scripture.
An understanding of God’s Word requires habits of attention to words, sentences, phrases, and stories. That’s why I hope to help my kids learn to live as word-focused people. That’s why I want us to be readers and learners.
The truth is that lifelong learning isn’t about becoming a stereotypical “bookworm,” buried between two covers at all times. Just as it is possible to become obese by eating too much even of healthy food, stories, too, can be overdone.
I would rather raise a thoughtful child who reads sometimes than a child who mindlessly consumes a favorite type of book without pause. This isn’t to say that children should read only highbrow literature. The point is to make friends of books. It’s about leaving room in our lives for contemplation. It’s about habits. And, yes, it’s about reading.
Find a Book for Yourself, and Read It
How does one convince children to love books? The meme is right: Nothing is so ineffective as preaching the merits of something you don’t do! The good news is that children are incredibly open to things they see you enjoy. You are their example of what it means to be an adult. Besides, don’t you want a fuller life? Reading good stuff is a blast.
It’s easy for busy parents to think we don’t have time for reading. However, that is usually not true. We usually find time for the little refreshments we think are a normal part of life, even if it’s just social media, a night out, or a coffee break. Rightly so. We all need mental, emotional, and spiritual rest.
If we rely on the consumption of luxuries or cheap entertainment to perk us up, our ‘rest’ fades before the manicure does.
The thing is, though, one of the best ways to achieve that is to provide our minds, feelings, and souls beautiful words and ideas. If we rely on the consumption of luxuries or cheap entertainment to perk us up, our “rest” fades before the manicure does. If we turn instead to Jane Austen or C. S. Lewis, we receive something to chew on for a longer time. It will give us a framework for ideas and allow us to laugh in the face of silly modern parenting pressure to serve the perfect organic birthday cake at a STEM-themed party free from phthalates and problematic gender roles.
The real obstacle is building the habit. That takes planning and a period of self-discipline, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to take hours and hours at a time. Seriously, you could read while you brush your teeth. You could tie your phone to a book so you’ll be reminded how you are planning to spend your spare moments.
You could associate books with something else you already like, such as your secret-chocolate-after-the-kids-go-to-bed. You could listen to an audio book in the car. Just start. We all know that routinely drinking water makes us thirsty more often, and a habit of enjoying excellent literature has a similar effect. Try to read in front of your kids, too.
Good Books Will Make You Want More
A huge part of making this work is finding books you want to read. Easier said than done, right? On the one hand, the whole point is to find words that teach wisdom and a love of truth. Yet we human beings are weak. Most of us find it hard to reach for Plato, Shakespeare, or St. Augustine when we’re tired and hormonal and our brains just want a little dopamine. On the other hand, a literary diet of stupid entertainment isn’t rewarding, either, and won’t feed our desire to build a relationship with good books.
Try starting by pulling out a classic you first read a long time ago—something from your high school lit class, for instance—that you remember positively. Narrative nonfiction is another good entryway. It’s written as a story, which makes it engaging, but it can be about a subject like history or science that already interests you.
Try starting by pulling out a classic you first read a long time ago that you remember positively.
Alternatively, there’s nothing wrong with Googling “classics everyone should read,” or “top mysteries from the golden age,” or whatever. Look for the books that show up on multiple lists and sound interesting. If you want to see what I’m reading these days, you can find my reviews on GoodReads.
If you are ready to embark on a structured course of study and are seeking detailed guidance, you might check out Susan Wise Bauer’s “The Well-Educated Mind.” She provides background on different genres of writing, suggests an approach to annotated reading, and offers lists of historically significant titles. Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book” is also highly respected.
However, if you possess perfectionist tendencies or get uncomfortable when you skip part of a set of instructions, these volumes might not be a good place to start. We can’t all sit down for an hour at a time in a quiet house to study and record notes in a designated journal. And that would be a very silly reason to not read.
For me, the key is variety, with good-quality fun mixed in. I know I’m more likely to successfully read “hard” titles when I aim for only a small portion a day, so I often read my “hard” book when I give the baby his midday nurse and enjoy something lighter when I nurse him in the evening.
Do Something with What You Read
Our goal is to build a life of thought and learning. That means this “reading thing” must be a long-term endeavor. Whether it is because we are infected by the dreadful pragmatism of modern culture or simply because it is human nature, most of us find it easier to value work when we can see tangible results.
It’s helpful to do something when you finish a book. Discussing it with friends is a good option. Simply keeping a reading journal—on paper or perhaps via GoodReads—is another. It’s quite satisfying to look back at a given year and see what you’ve read and what you thought of it.
It’s quite satisfying to look back at a given year and see what you’ve read and what you thought of it.
At the same time, the reading life shouldn’t become yet another burden in a crazy world. There is no point in feeling guilty about the number of titles you have or have not finished.
If you are truly shirking your duty to cultivate your mind for some bad reason, well, then, don’t wallow in feelings; repent and receive forgiveness from God. If you are simply in the midst of a state of life that doesn’t allow for reading, then carry on with your present duties. Keeping the kids fed is more important than “War and Peace.” Just don’t forget that a few minutes with a good book, exhausting as it sounds, might actually be the mental escape you need.
We all want to be the parent of the kid who reads. Far more important, though, is giving our child a parent who not only reads books but allows books to shape and transform our minds and souls. It’s the best way out of America’s parental rat race. It’s also a beautiful way to live.
Anna Mussmann is a stay-at-home mom who writes during nap time. She is fascinated by old books, ideas, and historic philosophies of education. Her work can also be found on the blog www.sisterdaughtermotherwife.com.