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.