Last night I was listening to a homeschooling talk, where I was once again given the much belabored advice; Read Aloud to Your Children. Until you go hoarse and the dishes and laundry pile up around your ears. The quintessential parental virtue. Sadly, I do not have it. For me, reading aloud is the equivalent of pulling teeth. That and I can’t sit down. I remember, early on, guilt would eventually gang up on me and I might have read books to my children. But then I just owned the fact that I would rather die. Or clean something.
My husband, on the other hand, is made of sterner stuff and will occasionally be found reading Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious to the mob. But not any more than is strictly Christian. Sometimes he tells them to stuff it.
And guess what? My children are still all voracious readers, or readers in the making. In spite of my bad parenting. They go to bed with their books by their pillows, and when they wake up in the morning they roll over and start wherever they left off. They read while they eat, while they’re supposed to be doing school, or any time you take their eyes off them for a second. They can’t get in the car without at least three books. They read in the grocery store, they read walking down the street, they read in trees, in forts, and in closets. In fact, it might be a little unhealthy.
Looking back I can wonder if there was anything I did that helped make them this way. But my suspicion is that it was because I married an Otto, and that’s just the way they come out. It’s hard to tell. But there are quite a few things I did try to do to influence the outcome. It’s hard to tell if it actually worked, or if my kids are just all pansies by nature. I’ll leave it up to you.
Here is my list:
- From the day they were born I never let any of my kids have super sensory toys. Nothing that had batteries, flashed, beeped, sparkled, or was made of plastic in general. I gave them blocks, wooden trains, puzzles, Lincoln logs, Legos, swords, tea sets, baby dolls, play food, and marble runs. But no Transformers, Marvel action figures, Barbies, Poly Pockets, Little Petshop, or basically anything that I have to capitalize because it’s licensed. That’s just how we’ve always done it. You can decide if it made a difference.
- My kids have always been surrounded by books. Going to the library has always been a weekly or bi-weekly event. And let me tell you, we have paid our share of library fines. We have also continued to build our own home library to the point where it’s an actual library. Not having something to read is not an issue.
- We try to be selective in the books we check out for our children, as well as the books we buy. My general standard for picking children’s books is the quality of illustrations. If books have realistic and quality pictures they often turn out to be sensible and thoughtful reads. We avoided the goofy books, sloppy books, as well as social conditioning books with a “message.” Like sharing, or recycling, or believing in your dreams. We don’t do any of that here. But we did do a lot of fairy tales, Robin Hood, Greek myths, and King Arthur.
- I have never shied away from directing my children’s reading. When my kids come up to me at the library with books I don’t like, and I tell them to put them back, I tend to do it in a guilty whisper when the librarians aren’t looking. Because I’m probably the only person who says, “No, you may not read the 125th Boxcar Children, because that is not actually a book.” There are soooo many books that my children never read. Like, the whole children’s section. And knowing Gideon, he totally could have. But we drew the line. Just because it’s a book, doesn’t mean it’s inherently good. Instead, I have worked my way through book list after book list, putting countless books on hold or inter-library loan. Little Women? Call of the Wild? Anne of Green Gables? Huckleberry Finn? Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Lord of the Rings? Name a classic, and odds are they’ve read it. That doesn’t mean I never let them read modern books, or the occasional trashy one. But I pace them. Reading quality books is hard, but it also broadens you. It makes you able to bear a greater weight of glory. And that’s what I want them to do. Read up. I thought that if they read enough good books, their taste for cheap books would weaken. Some day I won’t be able to tell what they can and can’t read. My only hope is to instill in them a taste for what is good. I also want them to be able to read old books without giving up. So I sneak a few of those in there as well. The ones with no shiny covers and funny words. Gideon recently finished Mark Twain’s, The Prince and The Pauper. If you crack it open your first impression is that you have no idea what these people are saying. But if you stick it out that muscle grows, and by the end of the book you find yourself immersed in something that started out as foreign. I try to keep challenging my children, but I do it without them noticing me hovering behind them with ten pound weights. They’re just having fun. But it is fun that is pointed somewhere.
- Just say no. While I try to direct my children’s reading in a positive fashion, and within their interests, I still don’t balk at flat out telling them no. There are some things we don’t do, and they don’t even ask. The biggest example of this is our ban on comic books, excepting Calvin and Hobbes and Asterix and Obelix, and those occasionally. Other than that, I don’t let graphic novels in the house. But I do let them look at them in the library, and that’s what they usually do the whole time. And I assure you, they are up on all their Super Heroes. I didn’t want there to be some kind of moralistic ban on comics, I just didn’t want them taking up all their time. If I let them, the boys would still be reading comic books and only comic books. And secondly, I like to have a firm reservation on the right to say NO. Period. Because, if the juvenile section weren’t bad enough, it appears that the rest of the books in the library are all sex and space ships. I’m surprised at how much adult literature is essentially man porn. The rest is mommy porn. With a whole bunch of artsy garbage in-between. A good book, who can find? My suspicion is that the goal of reading is to push you on to the greater realm of ideas. To be making and living the things you’ve read. At the end of your recreational reading career you need to have grown enough, in the love of the truth, to spread your own wings. However, grown men still in the science fiction section, are people who appear to have never left the ground. Because, in the end, living has to be better than reading.
- Limit technology. Books can’t compete with TV. What is hard doesn’t stand a chance with what comes easily. Entropy always wins. So turn it off. We let our kids watch a movie Saturday night and Sunday is “iPad Day.” The rest of the time they don’t even ask. Because the answer is no.
- Create the kind of environment where reading is welcome. I’ve observed this time and time again, but whenever the house is messy and chaos reigns, the children are less likely to read. They are anxious and discontent. But when the house is clean, and a piano sonata is playing in the background, they tend to melt quietly into different corners of the house with blankets and books. I also make sure they get at least an hour of vigorous outside time, every day, to clear their minds. And I find that they are inclined to read more, the busier they are. When we were renovating this house and they had the whole day to read, they hardly read at all. They just cried. But when I am running them off their feet, doing school and doing chores, they are reading every spare second they can find. It’s funny how that works.
- Last, lead a quiet life. Stay home. Deep thoughts need a deep pool to swim in. I don’t know about you, but my kids love boundaries. They love solidarity, predictability, security, peace and quiet. This is where they thrive. Sometimes I may sit down and read them a book or do a craft, but our home is my real gift to them. And it is the most powerful one.
Even the baby has “issues.”
Pack it in, pack it out.
We check out, on average, 70 books every two weeks. Yes, imagine the fines. Library discipline is starting to sink in though, and I think we’re getting better.
We have a system. It’s called the wrath of Daddy.