I was sitting and reading one afternoon last fall when the cat got up from my lap and, wakened from the world of the novel on my lap, I realized that the house was very quiet. So, I decided to check on the kids. I looked in on them in the room we’ve dubbed “The Library,” and both of my children were sitting on the couch, reading silently to themselves. They looked up at me and smiled and then looked back at their books.
“Holy cow!” I thought. “Finally, we can all read as a family!” Smiling, I went back to my book and my couch in the other room.
Friends have asked me how we got to this point. How did we get our kids to love reading? How do we get them to choose reading over screens and devices? In a recent post, Cheyanne of Tangerine Wallpaper posited some related questions, and I figured the topic of reading was worth a blog post (or two).
Really, we didn’t set out to make our kids into readers, but when I look at our house, I realize that we have developed something of a reading culture in our house, and even though we didn’t develop this reading culture for the purpose of promoting a love of reading in our kids, I think it contributes to the reading habits my kids have developed. Here’s what our reading culture looks like:
1. We read aloud with our kids.
The first book I read aloud to my daughter was a signed copy of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave that her godparents got her. She was about three weeks old and engaged in marathon nursing sessions during which I got tired of watching daytime television. So I picked up the book and starting reading. After that, I would read her bits of whatever I was reading, whether it was The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding from La Leche League International or The Fog of War about Robert McNamara or the just-published Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Over the years, we’ve just kept reading to the kids. Even now that they’re ten and six and both read independently, we still read to them every day. It’s a way of sharing literature with one another and making reading a family experience.
2. We listen to audiobooks.
We listen to audiobooks when it’s difficult to read aloud, like while we’re eating lunch or while we’re driving to various activities. Summer road trips start weeks before our departure as we request audiobooks from the library and get just the right box to stow them safely in the trunk during our travels. When we got stuck in traffic at the border to Canada at Niagara Falls on July 4th a couple of years ago, we were glad to have Harry Potter in the CD player (and a pub that let us use their restroom in shifts while one parent stayed in the car as it inched forward for three hours).
3. We take weekly library trips.
We love our libraries. When we lived in Mountain View, California, there were two libraries in two different library systems we could walk to easily. In Salt Lake City, the awesome Main Library and one branch library were within walking distance of our house, and if we needed something outside of the city library system, we could access the county system just a short drive or bus ride away. Here the town library is about two and half miles away. We can walk there during non-snowy times of the year, but we have to drive the rest of the time.
Everywhere, we’ve worked a set Library Day into our schedule. I pick up books to supplement our history, science, and language arts lessons, and the kids pick out whatever tweaks their fancy at the moment. Last week my son got a book of riddles, two Star Wars books, and two books about dinosaurs. My daughter got The Tales of Beedle the Bard, two books about weapons and armor, the next book in a series she’s reading about dragons, and a bunch of books about animals from the grown-ups’ nonfiction section, including one the librarian had recommended to her based on her reading habits (The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery). We try to keep the library books organized, and although my spouse gets a little anxious about the volume of books we borrow (we push the 50-item limit on three cards every week), we’ve not lost one yet, despite a couple of scares. (knock on wood)
4. We own very few devices.
This is a big one for us. We use the computer, but while we have one desktop and one laptop, we have no tablets and I have only a flip phone, so apps are not yet part of my children’s world. I’m not against them, it’s just that it’s so very easy to get consumed by the glowing world behind the screen, I want to be very careful about how my children engage with electronic devices. I want them always to see them as tools rather than as companions or gateways to happiness.
Periodically, people say, “But your kids are going to need to learn how to use these things! Otherwise they’ll be left behind!” As though my six-year-old doesn’t know exactly how to work an iPad when he picks one up. They’re made to be used without our needing to learn to use them. My children do not need hours with electronic devices each day to keep them up to speed with the latest technology.
5. We limit screen time.
Much to the chagrin of our houseguests, we have no television service, and if we can find a place to take our old but functional tube television, we’re finally ready to get rid of that (now that we realize that we use the TV only one day a year to watch It’s a Wonderful Life). The kids watch videos on Netflix or Amazon Prime or on DVDs we check out from the library. They get one hour on Wednesdays, one hour on Saturdays, and one hour on Sundays. That’s shared time, not one hour each. If we watch a movie as a family, the one-hour limit gets extended, but they don’t then get another hour in addition to the movie we’ve already watched.
There’s an iPad at the library, and my son gets fifteen minutes on that on Library Day, if it’s not in use and if he wants to use it. Most weeks he spends his time on books. My daughter does her Spanish and keyboarding lessons on the computer and uses Word to type up her essays, and both kids do online activities about once a month or so to supplement their science and history lessons. But when we go to the dentist’s office, they don’t bring a tablet or play on a smartphone; they bring books.
6. My spouse and I read.
In the evenings, I try to turn off the computer by 8:30. My children know I blog and they know what Facebook is, and they are aware of the existence of cute animal videos. But they also know that when I have quiet (or even not so quiet) time at home or away, I read. My spouse and I will watch a movie together one or two nights a week, but our kids know that most nights after they go to bed, we can be found reading (if we’re not at meetings or working out or trying to finish the dishes or planning for the following weeks’ homeschool lessons).
7. We talk about books.
All of us quote books or otherwise reference them in our conversations at dinner or whenever we hang out together. This isn’t something we try to do. Because we spend our time reading and talking about reading, our kids pick up on the fact that reading is something that’s important to us. We don’t have to say it; it just happens. Like the way that my kids quote The Simpsons even though they don’t watch the show. My spouse and I used to be huge fans of The Simpsons back before they started to suck, and we pepper our conversations with Simpsons references. As a result, our children make near-daily references to episodes they’ve not even seen (much like I know the words to Mairzy Doats because my parents sang it, not because I ever heard it actually played on the radio). Just today, my son said, “Iron helps us play!” He thinks it has to do with the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age because that’s what we’re learning about in history right now, but still…he’s quoting Rod Flanders.
8. We work in plenty of down time.
Reading takes time. If my kids are going from activity to activity, they don’t have time to delve into a book of any length or complexity. We don’t limit activities because we want to read, but we do limit activities because as introverts, we need quiet time to recharge, and because we have that time, we are able to fill it with books.
So that’s what a reading culture looks like at our house. I want to say again, this was not part of some master plan to create book-loving kids. My spouse and I love books, we are aware of the detrimental effects of too much screen time (from limited attention span to exposure to commercials to messed up sleep cycles due to exposure to LED lights), and we like to spend quiet time with our family. For us, this results in a reading culture. It’s possible that our kids would have loved reading even if my spouse and I did nothing but watch reality TV, just as it’s possible that we could live in a library and have kids who refused to open a book, but issues of correlation and causation aside, this is what has happened at our house and in our family.
Do you have a reading culture at your house? What does it look like? Did you set it up intentionally, or did it just happen naturally because you’re already a family of readers?
In the next post in my just-named “Raising Readers” series, I will tackle another question that comes up about reading and kids: Do you let the kids read whatever they want, or do you pick their books for them?