As parents and teachers, we hope to give the children we love strong values, traditions, and a clear moral compass. Using our own lives as an example for them to follow is by far the strongest way to do that. However, I think there is a subtle, but powerful, gift we can give our children that we sometimes overlook: a love of reading.
In books, children can find an un-judgmental peek into a confusing world. They can see hundreds of examples of other people, the choices they make and the good or bad that comes from those choices. They read stories about kids just like themselves…and very different from themselves. These stories help shape the people our children eventually become.
This is a bit of a funny story from my son’s younger days. I knew he had a love of books and we worked hard to foster that in him, but it really hit home during his fifth birthday party. We held it at one of those loud indoor amusement places where you fork over tokens to play games with controls that are covered in sugar and cheese droppings from the previous gaggle of kids (locusts) that descended upon them.
We had invited a bunch of his friends and of course parents and his grandparents. We got to the part where you open presents – Everyone standing around the birthday boy as he sits at his table and rips off wrapping paper to reveal the latest cool car or kung-fu grip action figure.
One of the last gifts he got to was from his grandparents, who I had coerced into buying books – a series of picture books from the great duo of Kate & Jim McMullan (I STINK, I’M DIRTY, etc…) They didn’t want to buy the books. They wanted to buy something “cool”, but I strong armed them into buying them nonetheless.
So the first question might be: Well who cares? Kids have so much going on in their lives, why pile books on top of everything else?
Middle school is such a transitional time for kids. They are really like tiny adults, but without all of the baggage. They’re learning fast though and they’re desperate to figure out who they will be in this world. They absolutely look to parents and teachers for examples of what it means to be a grown-up, and that’s the first place they should look. However, books can provide a glimpse into life that kids can’t get anywhere else.
I’m not just talking about books that directly or even subtly teach a life lesson (although there are plenty of good ones out there). Books that are just full of adventure and things blowing up have value too. There’s usually a hero (or heroine) in those types of stories and they have to make choices about what’s right and wrong. They form friendships and suffer setbacks. They struggle to overcome impossible odds and make sacrifices for the greater good. So what if a few pirate ships blow up along the way. If that helps to keep them interested, then all the better.
So probably the best way to help your kids develop (and keep) a love of reading is by starting early. Yes, I’m talking about picture books. But here’s something that’s really important and I didn’t it realize at first. Don’t just read a picture book like you would any other book. Don’t just read the words as you flip from page to page.
Instead, make it a much more auditory experience for young kids. What do I mean? Well, I’m convinced that younger kids use their sense of hearing much more than they do when they’re older. They listen to sound much more intently than we think. That’s why we sing children lullabies and other silly songs. They respond to that type of stimulus. Now that’s just my personal observations and I don’t know of any scientific testing to back that up, but I’ll bet as a parent you’ve noticed the same thing.