How to Raise Kids Who Love Reading

By Meghan Cox Gurdon
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
The Beautiful Mess
Do your kids like to read? Get them excited for books by making your home a place where books are treasured.

Last summer I stopped by the house of a friend to find her embroiled in a dispute with her son. It
was the kind of dispute that many parents are excruciatingly familiar with in its contours, if not
its specifics.

“Can I have my phone back?” These words were delivered with the droning petulance of a teenager who
has said them many times before.

“No, Felix,” his mother said. “No phone until you read. Twenty minutes.” She turned to me. “He has
to read.”

There was in her expression a blank exasperation. Of course, he has to read. Reading is important.
Reading is enlightenment. Reading is required by schools, and this boy was about to enter the ninth
grade.

“How about just the first chapter?” I chimed in, trading on my status in Felix’s family as “the book
lady.” The novel he was holding had been my idea: Reluctant readers who start this thriller about a
teen spy tend to finish it.

Fine!” the boy said, dropping into an upholstered chair and letting out a theatrical sigh. He
opened the book and started to read.

Victory! It may not have been the most harmonious scene, but by sticking to her guns, this mother
got what she wanted — what so many parents today want. Her child was reading a book, the story
blooming inside his mind even as the words increased his facility with vocabulary and syntax and
grammar. Better yet, the boy wasn’t on his phone.

But was it really a victory?

Your home’s culture

Those of us who grew up loving books want our kids to do the same. We want them to read for
intellectual and creative enrichment, certainly, but also to protect themselves against ignorance
and academic struggles. We may feel a rising desperation when they’re reluctant or obstinate, like
Felix, because they’d rather browse Instagram or play video games. At the same time, we may also
harbor the uneasy recognition that we aren’t reading as much as we used to, either, and that we have
our own unhealthy attachment to screens.

After Felix had cracked open the novel, his mom opened her laptop. “I need to check something,” she
said. Felix glanced over, and I saw him register the fact that while he was expected to focus on
reading a book, his mother was on the internet.

“This book is for 10- to 14-year-olds, which is not challenging enough for him,” my friend said to
me. “He’s going into high school and has to be reading at a higher level.”

She returned her gaze to the glowing screen. I looked at her unhappy face, and then at Felix,
sprawled out with the hated book, and it struck me that I was witnessing a perfect, miserable,
circular display of why reading has become a source of conflict in so many families. As parents, we
need to practice what we preach — being intentional about creating a home culture where reading
isn’t seen as a chore kids must first accomplish before they can get back to the thing they really
want to do.

Reading as currency

Why do kids do chores — or for that matter, eat their vegetables? Because parents insist on it.
Often, we also tie chores to rewards, which creates an incentive to do the work. Unfortunately, this
has the effect of putting the emphasis on the reward rather than the value of the task itself.

That’s what happened with Felix. The minute he finished the first chapter, he tossed the book away.

“Done!” he announced, jumping up. “I’m getting my phone.”

His poor mom let out a sigh. She had gotten temporary compliance but no change of attitude. This is
the problem with turning reading into a currency that buys screen time. The book becomes an
irritant, an obstacle to be overcome before getting back online. Having a child perform this task
alone, without other family members supporting or participating, makes it even less appealing.

Reading as a treasure

There is a happier way. It involves commitment, but offers the promise of lasting success. As
parents, we have the chance to create a culture of reading that incorporates everyone in the family.
By putting away our own screens and reserving time every day to read with our kids, we can make an
eloquent and powerful statement on the value of reading.

Reading to children, starting when they’re born and continuing for as long as they will let us, is
the first undertaking. These hours of warm, shared attention enrich relationships and dramatically
enhance children’s emotional and cognitive development.

Reading with them is the second. Some schools schedule time for D.E.A.R. — Drop Everything and Read
— and families can do it, too. Whether it’s during the odd half-hour or a regular stint every
weekend, settling down to read silently together takes reading off the battlefield. Over time, this
commitment can transform reading into a refuge for your family. If it sometimes involves more
chatting than reading, or more graphic than classic novels — well, so what? Instilling a love of
books is a process.

Reading battles — choose wisely

When a teacher assigns a novel, students have to read it whether they like it or not. At home,
having created a time for family reading, we can kindle children’s interest by helping them discover
books that delight them. Rather than fretting if reluctant readers choose insufficiently challenging
books, we can celebrate when our children find something they enjoy and continue to validate their
interest by finding more books like it. Libraries and bookshops are full of funny, wise,
unforgettable stories that can enrich our families. We just have to make time to find them.

You don’t have to take it from me. Take it from Felix, who told me afterward (by text, of course)
that “helping to find the right book is the first step” in getting kids like him to want to read.
Felix confirmed that while parental reminders are helpful, nagging “turns reading into a chore, not
a recreational activity.” He agreed that it would be helpful if adults put their screens away, too,
and modeled their own interest in reading.

I had one last question: Had he finished the book I’d recommended?

He texted back: “Yeah, I loved it. It was really good.”

A victory after all, perhaps!

Meghan Cox Gurdon is the children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal and the author of
The Enchanted Hour: The miraculous power of reading aloud in the age of distraction.

© 2019 by Meghan Cox Gurdon. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Share:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

About the Author

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Meghan Cox Gurdon is the children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal.  

You May Also Like

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.


If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.