Famed Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl was asked recently how to get a middle-grades child to read. The child’s parent said she’d tried requiring a set amount of reading time in order to earn video game privileges but that her child wasn’t reading with any pleasure. Instead, he was reading in a mechanical way, as if he was being forced to eat his vegetables. What, the mother asked, was she doing wrong? And, more importantly, what could she do right?
Before I get to Nancy Pearl’s suggestion of what to do, let’s look at why what this mother did wasn’t working. The problem is economic. The child was having to pay for something he wanted by doing something it was assumed he didn’t want to do. Just as requiring vegetables to get to dessert sends the message that the parent agrees that ice cream is more desirable than broccoli, requiring reading to get to video games sends the message that reading is a chore, like making the bed, that has to be dispatched before being allowed to go out to play.
Setting up these if-then contingencies creates a value system. The activity of greater value is what must be bought by a less-valued activity. In the parent’s scenario, reading can never be fun for her child, since she’s already designated it as much less-fun than video games.
- The first step in the solution to this problem is to uncouple video game play and reading. Instead of insisting that reading be done before games can be played, just limit the amount of video game play per day and require a certain amount of reading each day. No activity –reading or video games – should dominate the child’s time. Every child should get outside, should make things, and should play with friends, as well as reading and enjoying screen time.
- At the same time, act as if what the child is reading is interesting. Ask him about the plot, about the characters, what he likes or doesn’t like about the way the author writes, and so on. Let him read aloud to you a passage he thinks is funny. Value his reading, not just as a ticket to something else, but as something interesting all on its own.
- And then, as Nancy Pearl suggests, get the right books in front of your child. Perl suggests concentrating on funny books, even if these aren’t always books of literary merit. In addition, books of amazing feats, weird science, and strange facts are usually interesting to middle school kids, despite their sometimes lack of reliability. All reading is good reading. Let your child read what he wants.
What if your child is required by his school to read a list of books over the summer? And what if he thinks these books are deadly dull? Again, separate this task from his own reading for pleasure. And because it’s separate, do it differently. Read these books together, working together to get them all read by the start of the school year. Your child will get more out of the experience than if he plodded through these on his own, because he’ll be able to talk with you about the story and you’ll be able to add your own insights. Just don’t let this sort of reading be confused with his own fun reading. Let him feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this homework task and a sense of fun in doing his own reading of what he likes.
Most of all, don’t tie reading to any sort of rewards or punishment. Make some reading every day a requirement but also put books in front of your child that he wants to read.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.