What’s the second greatest gift we can give to our children? Thinking of Whitney’s sad passing this week, I’d certainly grant that love is the greatest gift of all. I can think of several contenders for the second greatest gift (I’m putting aside providing for the basic material needs for survival here). Discipline and the value of delayed gratification certainly feature prominently on my list, but I’d have to say a love of reading could be the second greatest gift.
My mother was always reading to us as kids. It was clear that this wasn’t a chore; rather, she loved the stories she read and the learning that flows from it. Stories would be a starting point for talking about values and life lessons, and exposing us to the wider world. The reading seed was well-planted by the time I was in elementary school, and I could independently explore the world through books. It was often my activity of choice, but was reinforced with clear expectations from both Mom and Dad that I read before opting for TV watching or other such idle pursuits. While other high school friends were cramming for the SATs, I’d been prepping for them since pre-school with all this reading. I don’t talk about my SAT scores much at my advanced age, but it’s relevant to note here that I got 100% of the SAT comprehension questions right.
In our fast-paced world, the ability to keep learning is perhaps the most important educational skill one can develop. Reading isn’t the only way to learn, but it certainly fuels the appetite for knowledge. With so much data being created every day, the ability to read quickly and critically is only going to grow in importance. So let me share some of the ways we are raising our young six-year-old reader:
1) Let’s Talk Baby: People looked at me like I was crazy, walking our infant son around the pond, carrying on a conversation about the world around me. “Who is he talking to?” their concerned looks said. Jodi and I bought into the idea that babies start picking up words long before they can talk, and we consistently talked with our full adult vocabulary with our baby. Oh yeah, when it was my shift on night time wake-ups, I sometimes read Shakespeare and Walt Whitman to let the rhythm of the words put B. back to sleep. Our son was able to say hundreds of words before his first birthday. He probably would have been an early talker anyway, but all the exposure clearly didn’t hurt . A strong oral vocabulary is an essential first step for a strong reader.
2) Sacred Story Time: This is, of course, not a novel idea. But clearly setting aside story time every night before bed is one important way to share the love of reading. Related to that is having good books available to read. I always let B. do the actual choosing from the shelf, so that we are reading based on his interests (though he asks for ideas sometimes).
3) Breakfast with a Book: For a couple of years now, we’ve been doubling up on story times by reading a book most mornings. I’m usually up on the computer for an hour or so before B. awakes, so sharing a story is a nice way to be focused on my son as he starts his day.
4) What I’m Reading: Clearly role modeling and sharing our love of reading is a great way to pass it on. However, my biggest time for reading my own books is after B’s bedtime, so I make a point to share tidbits about the book I’m reading with him–interesting facts if it’s a nonfiction, recapping elements of a novel that might be of interest. I also talk about books I enjoyed reading in the past, and what I have on my list.
5) Love the Library: While it’s important to own a good collection of go-to books, making regular trips to the library is a great family activity. In addition to their book collection, public libraries have many great activities to further encourage the love of reading. We’ve especially enjoyed the summer reading program that encourages kids to read a lot over the summer by rewarding them when they achieve reading goals.
6) Books Have Status: We can’t have enough books and other reading material around. The library is our first source for books, but we have also accumulated a good collection for B over the years…with the help of his book loving relatives!
7) Strict TV Limits: TV is the enemy when it comes to encouraging reading. We generally limit TV watching time to 30 minutes per day, occasionally allowing it to go up to an hour. When I was a kid, I couldn’t turn the TV on to watch the Red Sox or Superman until I had spent some quality reading time first.
8 ) Words are Everywhere: Reading doesn’t have to be just about books. We read with B as we go throughout our day. Anything that involves making sense of the printed word is good. So I’m happy when I see B. contentedly studying the pages of his Lego catalogs. He did this well before he could truly read them, which we encouraged. Now he enjoys these catalogs even more as he can read most of the text. We also encourage reading the newspaper, particularly on Sundays, when we make an activity of finding some stories of interest to read and talk about.
9) Don’t Google It: Of course, it’s wonderful to have answers to so many questions at our fingertips with the Internet. But when our lad asks good curious questions about the world, we try to resist having the default answer be “let’s Google it.” (of course we do this at times). When Brendan asked, “What makes wind?” the other day, got a book about it on our next trip to the library. I believe it’s important for kids to see books as well as the web as an a place to answer their questions. While you can’t beat the web for speed, the level of depth and engagement with a subject is different with a good, old-fashioned book!
10) Sweeten the Deal: Our fellah responds well to incentives! In the long run, developing the intrinsic love of reading is key. But it doesn’t hurt to reinforce the value we place on reading. B can earn marbles, convertible into dollars at the toy store, through his independent reading.
So those are some tips from our home, grounded in my own early reading days. What do you do to pass on the joy of reading?