February 24, 2014

Read Across the House

“Just let me do your hair,” I told her. “And then you can keep reading.” She got up and obediently walked over to the bed, where I sat perched on the edge with a brush and some elastics. “Pigtails or pony?” I asked. I got no answer. She was reading.

So, it’s official. I’ve pulled off a hat trick—three for three. They’re all readers. Good, really good readers. My five-year-old is reading Magic Treehouse and Ivy + Bean. My seven-year-old reads The Familiars and Roald Dahl and The Time Thief. My eldest, the nine-year-old, is reading the Star Wars books, the ones written for older teens and adults. They’re incredibly strong readers, although they do at times walk into inanimate objects.

People ask me all the time, “How do you do it? How do you get your kids to read? Mine are just not interested.” I’ll tell you.

I don’t know.

(Three points to anyone who gets that reference.)

It just sorted out that way. We do have a lot of reading material in the house—books in their rooms and spread out through the living room, magazines in the bathroom, a newspaper on the table. I’ve recently taken to reading poetry in the bathroom because—hello­­—it’s the right length. But a lot of it was just the way things happened. Since people keep asking, however, I’ll see if I can provide some instructions.


1)   Get rid of cable. Years ago, we discovered that Benjamin behaved badly after screen time, so we were cutting it down more and more until it got to the point that the kids were only watching maybe half an hour of TV a week. At that point, it was more cost-effective to get Apple TV and just purchase shows. But once we didn’t have cable, they watched even less TV. Now, other than an occasional movie, they don’t watch TV. We don’t watch much either. (We watch Downton Abbey, of course, but that can’t possibly count.)

2)   Buy books. Someone once told me that growing up, her parents had said “no” to toys all the time but never to books. That seems to be where we’ve landed, as well. I can’t even say “no” to books for me. I cannot walk out of a bookstore without several items in hand. How in the world will I look my kids in the face if I get books and they don’t? We’re fortunate to have the means to be able to buy books, but we also get a lot out of the library. We don’t like to limit ourselves.

3)   Hate video games. I have reluctantly capitulated and allow Zachary 20 minutes of vetted video games a day. As to the others, see #1.

4)   Serve them breakfast in bed. Several few years ago, I decided I’d had it with the boys fighting at breakfast. I told Zachary he could eat breakfast in his room while he read. This would give him the calm he needed before school and allow him some space before having to deal with the social group. Then, about a year later, I realized that Benjamin also needed quiet, calm time before school. He started eating breakfast while reading in bed, too, often wiping his hands on the bedsheets. Six or seven months ago, Lilah started asking why she couldn’t eat in her room. “When you can read well,” I told her. She started reading in her room during breakfast this week. Upside: it’s deliciously quiet in my kitchen in the morning. Downside: they keep forgetting to eat. Now, you may be thinking I’m nuts; you’d never spoil your kids by letting them read while eating breakfast in bed. That’s fine. You asked how I made readers and I’m telling you.

5)   Use reading to help your kids stay calm. My kids are—how shall I put this?—intense. Zachary, especially, used to be quite easily overwhelmed. We found that he was grouchy when he wasn’t into a book or series and that reading calmed him down. Now, if you found your child was more pleasant and happier when he was reading several hours a day, what would you do? Right. I thought so.

6)   Use reading to help you stay calm. Benjamin sleeps 11 hours a night, which, believe me, the child needs. That means he’s awake 13 hours a day. On a typical school day, he’ll be gone for six-and-a-half hours, which leaves him in my care for the other six-and-a-half hours. Assuming he needs three of those hours to build things, that leaves another three-and-a-quarter hours for slamming doors, yelling “shut up,” goading his brother, hitting his sister, and just general surliness, and fifteen minutes for being snuggly and adorable.  I have compelling motivation to set up a schedule wherein he read for an hour-and-a-half a day. Hell, sometimes I wonder why we have him reading so little.

7)   Be lazy. We did soccer once. It involved practices and games and equipment. Fucking equipment. It’s way easier to stay home and read.

8)   Get a lot of snow. You think a lot of babies are born nine months after a big snowstorm? Screw that. Readers are born during hellish winters.

Bottom line is, I made readers by believing in reading. I believe that reading can calm the soul, ease anxiety, and kick the shit out of boredom. I believe reading is a lifelong gift I can give my children, which is why I read to each individually every night, despite the fact that I’m now on my third go-round with On the Banks of Plum Creek and my second with The Half-Blood Prince. I believe my son can handle the difficult themes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and that reading it with me will prepare him for the difficult themes of life. I believe that reading logs kill the joy of reading, but don’t tell my eldest that, because he keeps arguing with his teachers about it and I think it’s pissing them off. I believe, oh do I believe, in giving my children strong nightlights and telling them to close the book and go to bed, but then leaving the book on the nightstand. Mostly, I believe that if I give them books, they’ll leave me alone while I read.

I’d write more, but I’m reading a fantastic book right now and I need to go finish it.

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  • Reply Eli February 24, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I have a reader in the house and I completely agree about the television and the buying of books.
    We do a ton of library borrowing (although I fully admit I should just buy books because the fines get ridiculous at times) because there is so much more to explore in the non-fiction in the library.

    I think the clincher for my son was finding the National Geographic magazines at the library. Back copies (think mid 2000 time frame are most recent) are sold for 10 cents. He reads National Geographic! I’m learning while he is learning and reading.

  • Reply Ellen Krueger February 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Love your techniques. One of mine ready very early because of reading while potty training. Did better at that than the intended exercise.

  • Reply Selena February 24, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Yes! What a great list.
    I do ‘quiet time’ with my kids (3 & 5). An hour (sometimes more if it’s a crazy day!) before bed, they chill in their room with books and quiet play. Sometimes I get the ball rolling by reading a few books but mostly they kick me out.
    I had a crappy childhood and found reading to be my escape. I still reach for Anne of Green Gables if I’m going through something tough. Reading is great (and cheap!) therapy. You’re so right about it easing anxiety and calming the soul.
    Thank you for giving me some more great ideas. (I also have a very intense child…i love your breakfast in bed idea!)

  • Reply Karen February 25, 2014 at 2:00 am

    At nearly 40 years old I still get squirrelly if I don’t have a few great reads waiting in the wings. I’ve always been a reader, too, and was reading books out loud- correctly- to younger kids almost as soon as I turned four and read Death Be Not Proud and A Call to Arms, both entirely by choice, when I was ten. In the blood 🙂
    I HATED the required reading lists when I was growing up because I resented being forced to spend good reading time on things I was forced to ingest though I did find some lifetime literary loves that way. But The Scarlet Letter was not one of them! I tried and tried to get past the first few pages. So many loved it but it bored my socks inside out.
    Your breakfast-in-bed-with-a-book is so cool! It sounds like you created just the thing to set you all up more calmly at the beginnings of your days.

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