How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.

Less isn’t more–but it’s easier to keep clean.

Today, Apartment Therapy summed up all my household goals and aspirations in one short, clear, and illuminating little post. The secret? Minimize all the stuff that clutters up your house and your day. Check it out:

Dirty Little Secrets of Tidy Families. They narrow it down to four basic things:

  1. Less stuff.
  2. Less web surfing.
  3. Limits on tv.
  4. Don’t let temporary messes become permanent.

I can’t say we are anywhere close to meeting these criteria yet, but at least we’ve got a plan in place. Baby steps, my friends, baby steps.

 

 

Optimizing the workforce: Learning to delegate (and learning to be stubborn)

A confession: I hate housework.

I get no joy from making floors sparkle, or from a sock drawer that is arranged by color story, and don’t even get me started on the puzzling degree of laundry room porn that keeps popping up on my Pinterest  feed.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Seriously, if I had enough money to or square footage to devote a sunny room of my home to a glorious laundry facility, I’d just hire someone to do the damned laundry. I just need the clothes clean and folded–and put away–and for the house tidy enough that I don’t feel compelled to make excuses for a mess. But even that level of tidiness is a challenge for my family: None of us are particularly particular about making things just so. We’re kind of aiming for good enough.

When I was a kid, my mother managed to keep a house of similar size and population always looking tidy through a combination of extreme editing (she eschewed knick knacks, which she referred to as “dust collectors”), practical choices (dark carpets and surfaces that “hid the dirt”), and a solid housework schedule (she cleaned/dusted/put things away all day, every day). The rest of us had few to no responsibilities for household chores. I’m not kidding. The most I ever did was straighten my room once in a while, or start my laundry, which my mom would eventually put in the dryer and fold and often even put away. It was, looking back, a pretty sweet deal for us kids and my dad. But the point is that keeping that very tidy house very tidy was pretty much a full time job for her.

The thing is, I have another, almost full-time job, and my husband has an often more than full-time job. We split the work on most household tasks fairly evenly, but that’s not to say it’s really 50/50—more like 35/35, with about thirty percent just not getting done.

However, the changing demographics of our household have made available new labor resources. My little boy and girl are now a teen and a tween—virtual minions!—who could and should be picking up that last 30 percent.  Of course they should be. But why weren’t they?  Well, because I never made them. Never really taught them how to clean their room, or the bathroom, or anything. Frankly, I never really learned these things myself.  I would tell them to clean the bathroom, and let them procrastinate. I would pick up (or more likely, just ignore) the shoes, books, sweaters, and other random detritus they leave in their wake when they walk in the door and pack their schoolbags for them before they walk out it. It was just easier to do it myself (or ignore it all) than to argue with them, or even to just take the time to show them how to do it/do it with them.  That’s because I have very, very little patience. That lack of patience (and lack of interest) is probably why I never learned these skills and habits from my mother (I am still notorious for just dropping my crap on the table when I walk in the door myself). It also makes me a total pushover—the kids know that if they whine and procrastinate enough, I’ll cave and do it for them.

So, on the advice of my husband, I’m making it a goal to learn to delegate, and to learn to be stubborn.  This week, I just stopped picking up after them at all. If they leave their shoes, a dish, or anything in the living room, I call them from wherever they are and make them put it away, even though it would be way less work for me to just put the stupid dish in the dishwasher myself. It’s a chore, really, yelling down to the playroom for them to come upstairs and directing them on what to do. But it’s already paying some dividends: Himself is getting better about picking up after himself in general, and Herself has finally started clearing her own breakfast dishes without me asking her to do it. Don’t get too excited: The dining room is still of crap that doesn’t belong there (much of it mine). But, tiny victories, you know?