Getting kids to read: advice from Judy Blume, and a confession from me

I am, I confess, a con artist.

I raised two boys.  Let’s call number one Action Man.  He never sat still so reading to him was purely a pain down under.  Number two was the Collector, and still is judging by the  ‘stuff’ on every horizontal surface of which he considers himself the occupier.  You know who I’m talking about, right?  Neither was a reader by inclination, much to the disgust of their mother.

So what did I do?  I conned them, of course.

I paid them to read.  Not in money exactly, but by points earned that went against the monetary value of big-ticket items.  The new bike that was already on the Christmas shopping list was a classic example.  Their innocence meant that they didn’t realise they only got what would have come their way in the natural course of events.  They just read voraciously, especially after we established that the bigger the book, the more points you scored.

Soon it was Harry Potter, and that’s where it did cost me.  I had to buy two copies of every book in the series, and still wait my turn.

The real reason I love to tell this story, though, is the priceless moment when Action Man woke up.  He had just finished another book, and had obviously had a light-bulb moment. He said, ” [Expletive]  I know why you did that now!  You wanted to turn us into readers!”

The point?  Do whatever it takes.  Bribe them.  Con them.  Lie.  Tease.  As Judy Blume says:

“Before you give your child the beloved book, leave it lying around the house, preferably on your nightstand. Then, when your daughter asks about the book, tell her that you picked it up for her, but now you’re not sure she’s old enough for it.”  (You can read Judy Blume’s other pointers here.)

Mine are both in their early twenties now, and don’t find as much time to read.  They have busy lives, and you and I both know how many alternatives they have open to them.  I take comfort, though, that when they go on holiday there is always a new book in tow, and they always want to tell me about it when it’s done.  So, if I’m being honest with you, that’s what I really did.  I read the books they read, we talked, we argued, we fell in love with the characters, and sometimes we cried.  Well, I cried.

That’s how I know I turned my kids into readers.  And became a con artist in the same breath.

How did you do it?

My thanks to Carrie for her post on the Services to Schools Southland Network group – linking to Judy’s advice above.  Great inspiration.

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7 Responses to Getting kids to read: advice from Judy Blume, and a confession from me

  1. I never deliberately set out to get my kids to read. I would read to them when they were babies…the first book was a large book about rainforests. We always had many books in our house and read alot, fiction, non-fiction, newspapaers, journals. My children always thought reading was what people did. My daughter loved fiction and from the age of 4 wanted to be an author. My son loved non-fiction then when he was about 10 statred reading fantasy. He is now a Raymond E Feist fan and also Robin Hobb.
    Punishment in my family was being told that the light would go out when they went to bed and they weren’t allowed to read.
    So it was a great surprise to discover as a library teacher that reading is “gay”. Some kids find reading like running a marathon, it literally makes them exhausted. I use bribery, they get stars on a chart, class awards, awards of excellence, literary awards and lollies. Yes all of this works with high school kids! I also start them with illustrated novels particularly if they have been made into movies. Gradually they will progress to novels…some of them still find it hard work. Concentating on one thing for an hour is a real feat!

    • Thanks for that – I too was a bit shocked when I started out in libraries to realise how high the level of resistance was. And I agree about the concentration – that short attention span has so much to answer for!

  2. Sherievon says:

    Great post Donna, my girls are both in their thirties, but I virtually read to them from birth, starting with Dick Bruna’s Miffy books. Both girls were reading before they went to school, not because I taught them (as I was accused of doing by my elder daughter’s first teacher!), but because they were immersed in literature from day one – they just picked it up along the way. I often wonder how much more difficult it is for parents these days with the advent of iPads, etc, but I have seen with my own grandchildren that kids can still be encouraged to read “real” books and enjoy e-books on the iPad as well. All three of my grandies love their books, and gravitate towards them in preference to the books we have available for them on the iPad, which we use as a treat. So far so good then, but I will have to remember your “bribery” trick if this changes in the future!

    • How I wish mine had responded in the same way – I tried all of that but, especially after they got to kindy age, they just weren’t that responsive. Glad I persevered, thought – it paid off in the end.

  3. Hamish Lindop says:

    Hi all,
    I’m not a father, but I do work in a library. I got read to a bit as a kid, I can remember being bored to tears as a young boy with the Chronicles of Narnia, which is funny cos I love those stories, but found them more accessible through the tv series that got made of them – sacrilidge I know! I have always had a somewhat on again off again relationship with reading, like every once in a while a book will hook me. I spend more time listening to music, and recently what I’m getting into reading is… funnily enough, blogs about libraries. I know that blogs are just short chunks of info so it must be doing terrible things to my attention span, not always having a long text that I’m working on, but I seem to get on pretty well in life and I’m very happy, and feel like I’m reasonably enriched with culture.

    I guess what I want to say is that when we talk about “getting kids into reading”, I think reading is definitely one thing that we should be sharing with our kids, along with a myriad other things that will make them happy and healthy, like nature, craft, all sorts of media, some of it text based, conversation(some of it about books), meditation, sports, and the list goes on… can you see what I’m getting at here? Life has a lot to offer, and some of it sits in books. I think that it’s great if you’re a passionate reader of books, and great if you’re an on-off one, and it could be great too if you’re a non-reader, if you use your brain and your body actively and engage with the world in some meaningful way. That statement is tempered with the knowledge of all the good stuff that reading does for thinking skills, but on the other hand, what about all the amazingly effective and illustrious people from non-text cultures, like the great Maori orators who lace every sentence that comes out of their mouth with poetry; wouldn’t it be great if our text cultures could take some of that on board.

    Thanks for the thread, this reply that I’ve written has really gotten something on to paper that has been churning around in my mind for ages. I work in a learning services team of a library and would like to see libraries step into a broader cultural and informational arena, as the role of physical repository for print wanes with the rise of electronic formats. Anyways thanks for the thoughts.

    • Hi Hamish
      Thank you so much for that thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I agree with much of what you say, there is and ought to be much more to life than developing the skill of reading. And I think that we (and our kids) are reading just as much as we’ve ever done, we’re just doing it in different ways. When I talk about my boys, the one who technically reads the least if we mean reading as in books, actually immerses himself in online text off and on all day, every day. He reads news on Stuff, follows gaming sites and music websites and blogs avidly. He probably reads much more than I did at that age, because his laptop and smart phone are pretty much implants!

      It think, though, where I would beg to differ just a little is around acquisition of language – I think there is a risk in abandoning literature and the art of reading completely. We are still a very text orientated world, and all the research shows that acquisition of rich language is one of the best predictors of so many of the things by which we measure success – academically, in the world of work, and of course, wealth. I am prepared to argue about whether wealth should be seen as a measure of success or happiness though!

      Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. I, too, work in the public library sector, and we are definitely looking at enriching our library programmes for kids beyond the traditional. Love to hear your ideas on that, too!

  4. Carrie says:

    Thanks for sharing Donna! I loved your son’s “a-ha moment” and your point about reading the same books they read is so important. I’m sure your discussions and the way you shared their interests had much more to do with turning them into readers than the points they earned :)

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