These days, almost no one reads books.
So what, right? There are movies, podcasts, and videos now. Maybe those are the new “books,” and we are just old-fashioned.
It’s not so much which books they read–there is something special about the act of reading itself. It’s transformational to sit down and focus on something deeply considered. Yes, we have great new technologies. But, still, nothing beats books.
So, how do you get your kids to love reading for life?
Here are ten things to try:
1. Read to them
We begin with the most obvious but perhaps the most important: read to your kids.
We all know we should do it, but sometimes it slips through the cracks. It’s one of those things that seem important but not urgent. Let’s reframe it as urgent.
Kids form attachments to books from an early age. The feel of the paper, the smell of old books, or the sound of turning pages–all formed while you’re reading to them as children. That window is closing every day. And those tactile loves formed at early ages will compel them to love books for the rest of their lives. That’s a gift.
We all have busy lives, but there is arguably nothing more meaningful to do with your time than read to your kids. Like all long-term investments, it’s hard to prioritize it when it is important but not urgent.
Reading to your children is important. And, because you don’t have forever, it is also urgent.
2. Let them read to you
On the other hand, some kids are born with a lot of “spirit.”
Take now 7-year-old Seth, for example. Seth’s first word was “no.” Seth’s mother wanted to do the right thing and read to him–but he didn’t like her character voices and always had objections to the story. Everything was a fight for him. It exhausted his mother.
Finally, when he was 9, she let him read to her. Seth was transformed. It turned out he loved to perform.
He read her the first Harry Potter book every night. After a while, he couldn’t get enough of their nightly reading time, so he started to read on his own. To this day, Seth loves reading.
Each child is different, and the approach to getting them to love reading sometimes requires a little creativity.
3. Let them read what they want
Parents have a lot of ideas of what kids “should” read. It comes from a good place–we rightly feel that some ideas and stories are more important than others. We should probably encourage children to read great works of literature, right?
Here are three gentle objections to that:
- It’s impossible to know what stories mean to kids
- Reading anything is better than reading nothing
- Great literature will interest them when they’re ready
First, almost all stories are deeper than we know how to talk about. Here’s a 2-hour lecture on the Lion King, for example. Kids can feel the deeper lessons even if they don’t “know” anything about psychology lectures. If you can’t understand why your kid enjoys reading certain stories, trust they are trying to understand something important about the world that neither of you could explain.
Second, the act of reading is good. It requires patience and imagination not found while scrolling or watching TV. If they’re reading anything, count it as a blessing.
And third, if kids can read what they like without shame, they will follow their interest deeper and deeper and usually find themselves reading great literature. Still, even if they’re reading Harry Potter for the 10th time, one hour of truly invested reading is worth 10 hours of “supposed to” reading.
Something we forget (probably because of traditional schools): great literature is great because it’s interesting! Not because it’s homework.
4. Take interest in what they already like
Let’s look at another example: A dad took the time to read “Eragon” with his kid. To this day, the son talks about reading those books with his dad.
While it might seem like “kid stuff,” you might be surprised at how much you enjoy reading what your kids already enjoy. Stories that grab our attention are almost always deeper than they seem.
Give what your kids love a chance.
5. Leave great books around the house
Sometimes, you have to hear a song a dozen times before you even like it. That song often ends up being your favorite, doesn’t it? It’s just a human fact: familiarity leads to preference.
If you leave great books around the house, kids are much more likely to pick them up at some point in their life. Yes, all stories are deeper than they seem, but sometimes reading something more challenging is good. That’s development.
Many great books are challenging, but challenging things require a passion for the subject matter. We need passion before the challenge. Don’t force the book without the passion–that just makes them hate challenging books, which is a major loss.
If you leave great books around the house, your kids will likely take up the challenge one day. You just don’t get to pick the day.
6. Talk about things you read
You can’t expect your kids to enjoy reading if you don’t enjoy it.
Having a real reading habit while your kids are young is one of the best things you can do for them. Read things you love. Tell them about parts you enjoyed or things you learned. Smile when they roll their eyes at you.
If you find reading challenging or hard to fit into your schedule–consider what the traditional school system might have imprinted on you. Did you learn to dread reading? Could you deschool yourself?
If you want your kids to find their passion for reading, re-find your passion for it. Go on the journey together.
7. Bring books when you go out
Stephen King keeps a book in his back pocket so that he can read anytime he’s standing in a line.
There is a lot of “down” time in life. For most people, it’s filled with mindless scrolling on a phone. Kids are very observant–if they see you reading in a line, they might want to do it, too.
8. Listen to audiobooks in the car
Back in the 90s, people had giant plastic tomes filled with cassette tapes of classic books. When the family would go on a road trip, the kids had to pick one. Each kid had their favorite: The youngest liked Frankenstein. The middle liked The Odyssey. The oldest sister liked Pride and Prejudice. They eventually learned to take turns.
While we no longer listen to cassettes from a giant plastic case, we can still add limitations that light up kids’ imaginations. “Only classics” is a good rule. Or “only in the fantasy genre.” When imposed playfully (instead of by force) limitations can expand possibilities.
When kids have endless options, it’s hard to pick one. Further, kids bond over shared limitations. And, they bond (and fight) over having to listen to each other’s choices.
9. Encourage boredom
Boredom is an important state of consciousness slowly being lost to smartphones. We can steal it back for our children by not always soothing the complaint “I’m bored.” Instead of giving them a phone or sitting in front of a TV, we could say, “Good!”
If you’ve taken the advice to leave books lying around the house, kids’ boredom may become channeled into reading. And when they don’t have an “easier” option available, they may discover they find reading quite fun.
10. Start a family/peer book club
Start a tradition of reading in your family. Sit around the table and discuss what you read that week or month.
If you form a book club and read the same thing (without coercion), all the better.
It will allow your kids to live other people’s lives in a few hours.
Nothing is more transformative than that.