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Build a Reading Family: How to Share Reading with Your Kids

Build a Reading Family: How to Share Reading with Your Kids
Build a Reading Family: How to Share Reading with Your Kids

    With so many distractions available to them — cable TV, DVDs, MP3 players, PlayStations, MySpace, and the vastness of the Internet — it’s getting harder and harder to turn children on to reading. The idea of sitting down with a good book and losing yourself in it seems to be a casualty of today’s instant-on, entertainment-saturated culture.

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    It’s not just reading skills that are being lost. It’s possible that, adding together all the webpages, advertisements, in-game storyboards, and other bits and pieces of text that surround us, kids are reading as much as or even more than they were in the pre-digital era. But with reading, it’s not just raw figures that counts: it’s the quality of experience that’s being missed out on. Reading books teaches comprehension and vocabulary, certainly, but it also teaches the pleasures of slowly-building anticipation, the importance of lingering and reviewing to draw new meanings and connections, the projection of self into imagined worlds of our own making.

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    So how do we get kids interested in reading? As all parents know, children usually aren’t swayed by the “try this, it’s good for you” argument. Although none of the children in my family read as much as I do, I have had more than a little success getting them to read — and, perhaps more importantly, to like reading. Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

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    • Take them to the library. I go to the library every Saturday morning, sometimes with just one child, sometimes with the whole family. We make an outing of it, and I spend at least a little bit of time with each of them brainstorming subjects to look up and reviewing books with them. It pays to talk to the librarian, especially if your library has a children’s books librarian, to see what special resources your library has and what they recommend for your children. Get to know the children’s section, too; our library has a section specifically devoted to Newberry award-winners, any one of which is guaranteed to be a hit.
    • Get them their own library card. Even if your children only go to the library with you, get each of them their own library card. Having a library card gives children a sense of ownership, a sense of investment in their reading choices. It’s something they own, a marker of participation. Our five-year-old, who doesn’t have a library card (library rules) but got a card for signing up for the summer reading program, told everyone he met for a week about his card: “I have a library card!”
    • Ask for a commitment. I come from a family of salesmen, and one of the first rules of sales is to make the customer commit him- or herself. So I tried it with my kids, and it works pretty well. Here’s what I do: at the beginning of the week, I ask each of them, “What are you going to read this week?” If they’re in the middle of something, they hold it up and I ask a few questions and we move on. If they’re not reading anything at the moment, I make a few suggestions and let them pick something. The idea is, once they’ve made a commitment, it becomes theirs; they’re not letting me down if they don’t keep reading, they’re letting themselves down. Since nobody wants to do that, they’ll push themselves — and I don’t have to. Reading becomes something they do for themselves, not for me. Excellent!
    • Read with them. Set an example for your children to follow. Ask your librarian if they have “family packs” (usually several copies of a book plus a reading guide), or if you can check out multiple copies of the same book. Have each member of the family, or at least a couple of you, read the same book at the same time. This way, you can discuss it, ask questions, and generally help your child get the most out of their reading. If you’re worried about reading “kid’s stuff”, don’t be; as it happens, some of the best writing being done today is in the early reader and young adult sections. There’s incredible stuff in fantasy and science fiction, as well as horror, mystery, and family drama stories. Again, look for Newberry winners, like Lois Lowry’s amazing book The Giver. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions of these books — most books for young readers are more than able to sustain deep analysis.
    • Know the awards. Unlike the Oscars and the Grammies, awards for children’s books are generally a marker of excellence, not merely popularity or name recognition. The Newberry and Caldecott medals are awarded by the professional association of children’s librarians, the Association for Library Service to Children, for outstanding contribution to American literature: the Newberry is for novels, the Caldecott for picture books. Other major awards include the Boston Globe – Horn Book award, given for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and illustration; the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; and the Hans Christian Andersen medal, awarded to an author from any country for a distinguished body of work. Look for the medals or other indications of award status, and if you’re not familiar with an award, ask a librarian or look it up on the Internet.
    • Aim high. I regularly bring home “young adult” books for my 11- and 12-year olds, after screening them to make sure there’s not anything I don’t think they can handle. Kids can handle quite a bit, though, if we let them; far too often we under-estimate their abilities and either bore them or acclimate them to mediocrity. Give them a chance to push themselves — most kids will rise to the challenge. Obviously this doesn’t mean giving War and Peace to your first-grader, but books by John Steinbeck, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and other major authors can certainly be shared with middle-schoolers. And getting them used to reading challenging literature outside of school can help prevent a merely average English teacher down the line from leaching the joy out of reading these books — or worse, instilling in them a fear of the classics.
    • Discuss amongst yourselves. Ask questions about their reading, whether at the dinner table, in the car, or on lazy weekend mornings. Ask them questions. If you’ve read the book they’re reading, test them — gently. Tell them how you felt about it when you first read the same book. Ask them what books it reminds them of, or how they feel about the main character. Let them tell you the whole story, “oh wait, I forgots” and “no, that was laters” included. Get them to talk about what they’re reading, to make it their own.
    • Ask older kids to read to younger kids. Reading out loud is an important skill in its own right, but it’s also an opportunity to bring siblings together, and to get older children in the habit of explaining in clear and simple language what they’re reading. And, of course, it will help instill a love of reading in your younger children. Along these lines, you might consider playing audiobooks in the car or around the house for younger children to listen to.
    • Limit screen time. This is hard. Extremely hard. As much as possible (without being draconian about it), limit time spent playing video games, surfing the Internet, or watching TV — not because they should be reading instead, but because they should be doing anything else instead. Maybe they’ll read. Maybe not. At least they’ll have a chance, though.
    • Don’t disparage other activities. Make reading compete against video games, and you’ll lose. Reading a book isn’t a substitute for TV, XBox, or FaceBook; it’s its own thing, with its own rewards. Encourage a healthy balance of activities, reading among them.
    • Don’t rush them. Kids read at their own pace. What takes me an hour and 45 minutes to read might take my step-daughter a week. That’s fine. Reading isn’t a race to see who can read the most pages a minute or the most books a month. If they’re dawdling, set reasonable goals (finish this chapter, read 10 more pages, whatever seems reasonable) or figure out why they’re stuck; otherwise, let them set their own pace.

    Remember, reading should be fun, not yet another chore to get through. It is something you and your children can share, not something they do for you. That said, be firm. Sometimes it’s necessary to apply a little pressure, but only when you’re absolutely sure it will pay off. When my partner asked her son to read a book she had loved, he balked; we told him he had to read the first three chapters, “or else!” I don’t think it was wrong to push him, but only because we knew he’d like it once he got started; a couple days later, he started telling us excitedly about some scene or other, and in the end he loved the book. If he’d still been uninterested after chapter 3, though, we’d’ve let him off the hook.

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    It bears saying that if you don’t read, your children won’t either. This isn’t a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of thing. Which isn’t to say that if you do read, they will; it’s only the first pre-requisite. Try some of the tips above and see how they work. Or share your own tips with the rest of us below.

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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