Simcha Fisher: Getting kids to read more and better books

Reading Time: 3 minutes
PHOTO: Mi Pham

What’s the rule, ladies and gents? The rule is: If you scoff at someone for their struggles, you’ll someday be struggling with that same thing yourself. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, especially as a parent.

My current comeuppance: I used to scoff at parents who had to push kids to read more. In our house, our reading habits at the time were progressing from “robust” to “pathological.” We had to make rules against reading while walking through busy parking lots, for instance. Reading, I thought, would never, ever, ever be a problem for us.

Welp, my kids are still good readers and they’re still fond of reading, but for the older kids – and for me – staring at screens has become the default activity for free time, rather than reading books. We’re working on that, and I’m working at setting a better example.

But even when they do read, I wish they would read better stuff. I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.

My kids do read good literature, and they can usually tell the difference between good stuff and cheap stuff, but it’s just too easy to form lazy tastes – and again, I sympathise! Next thing you know, the only book you can make yourself get through has short little paragraphs, lots of drama and razzle dazzle, and not much else; and any book that challenges you with beauty or depth just seems like too much work. It’s exactly like eating too much junk food: Your palate becomes accustomed to salt, sugar, and harshly flavored chemicals, until food like peaches, fresh tomatoes, or plain bread and butter tastes boring and pointless.

But you can retrain your kids’ palates! How?

You can insist they read good books, of course; but mandatory reading imparts what we call “The Kiss of Death,” and insures that your child will hate the book even if he loves it. You can also bribe kids to read – and I’ve done this, in a desperate bid to break away from Harry Potter Harry Potter Harry Potter – but it has much the same effect as forcing them to read. It’s all about doing what they must, rather than helping them enjoy it.

So instead, starting this week, I’m making a deal with my kids: If they read one of the books I like, I’ll read one of the books they like – and we can do this as many times as they like. I’m not going to start assigning, like, Madame Bovary (mainly because that book should go die in a fire). I’ll stick to books that I think are worth reading, but which are fully enjoyable and entertaining.

I think they will assign mostly books they think I will like, too, and not just torment me with Captain Underpants. Looks like I’m starting off with The Luck Uglies, which has captivated my three elementary school-aged girls (5-10 years). No spoilers, please!

I like this approach for several reasons. They will read at least some good books, of course; but also, I’ll know more about what captivates them, and we’ll have more to talk about together. They’ll know I care about what interests them. And we’ll be doing something as part of a relationship, rather than just because I’m in power and I can make them do what I want.

What do you think? Am I overly optimistic? Will I spend July slogging through unreadable glurge? Will the Kiss of Death prevail? And what other comeuppances are lurking in the wings?