I’ve seen a number of recent articles focusing on how to get your kids to like to read. One of the best was from the Atlantic and is included below. But all of them miss a critical, but somewhat paradoxical, point: To get kids to choose to read, you have to give them the choice not to read.
As far as I’m concerned, reading fiction is a form of imaginative play. It might take a more nuanced approach than, say, the preschoolers I sometimes see on the playground at my school, but at heart, is there really a difference between pretending to be a dinosaur and imagining Clarissa Dalloway setting off in the middle of June of 1923 to buy the flowers herself?
One of the key components of play is that it’s an activity conducted primarily for its own sake and on its own terms. Psychologist Peter Gray captures it perfectly when he explained
, “Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty.”
It follows, then, that one of the most critical elements of play is the ability to choose to play, and in particular, to have the option to stop. This is one of the most critical components helping your kids find the joy in reading: Let them stop reading something that no longer interests them. And while we’re at it, give yourself that same permission, too.
One of the most insidious components of literacy education is that it hammers into us a bizarre guilt around choosing to stop reading a book before you’ve finished it. It transforms reading from a “private pleasure delivery system” into an obligation.
It’s one of the reasons that I love the library so much: It keeps me from feeling even a shred of guilt if I abandon a book. There’s no way that I would possibly read as much as I do if I had to pay for all of the books I check out.
For some people, however, the experiences of formal education have a half-life that lingers, as though by not finishing a book, some imagined teacher is going to chide you for not completing your homework. We’re waiting for someone else to excuse us from the assignment, I guess.
So consider this a permission slip from me to you: If you’re not enjoying a book, put it down and find another. And give your kids permission to do so, too.