Like many things in the land of parenting, I think the love of a good book is a great combination of nature and nurture. The nature part has nothing to do with me as a mom, but I will surely do my bit to foster an appreciation of beautiful words and proper grammar. A few bits of encouragement sure can’t hurt, and they might even help!
That’s the nurture bit. Here’s how we do it. (Okay, I say ‘we’ but that really means ‘me’ on this one.)
1) Make it available.
If good reading material is at their disposal, children will have an increased chance of being exposed to it and … wait for it… might even come to enjoy beautiful literature. Shocking, I know. If it’s not there, they won’t see it, plain and simple.
2) Remove the books that are less desirable.
If the bookshelf includes a copy of The Hobbit – great! If it also includes the latest volume of Captain Underpants, it’s like encouraging toilet humour. And if your house is anything like mine, the kids don’t require any assistance in that department. They are able to produce enough of their own, thank you very much.
We really try to restrict books we find to be less-desirable. For us, that has included the obvious (cursing, sex and violence), but if it’s a book I don’t know about, I look online and also read a few random pages to see what it’s all about. Sometimes, the content shocks me. I mean really? Kids who are happy their dad is dead? No thanks. Not the kind of quality I want to push, regardless of the circumstances. And I’m sorry, but a seven-year old does not need to be reading about who dumped whom in a story. There’s loads of time for that when they’re older. Concerned parents everywhere are all a-buzz about the speed at which their kids are maturing; their loss of innocence. This kind of stuff certainly doesn’t help.
But restricting these types of books can be difficult to do, especially if you have a voracious reader who needs the challenge of more difficult material. We have had great success with the classics – a more challenging read (some words that might require a dictionary) but with better language and content. Unless you have an opportunity to intercept things as they come in, it means having to make your requests known to gift givers. How you approach it will depend of course on who you are talking to and the kind of relationship you have. Regardless of the situation, it’s best to be clear but sensitive. They are just trying to be generous, and are probably just going on the basis of what the bookstore owner told them, so remember to keep that intention in mind.
3) Schedule private reading time.
This has always been a must in our home. And as our kids have gotten older, they have been able to stay up later on the condition that they spend the last 20 – 30 minutes (minimum, depending on their age), reading. When our son turned 10, we upped his bed time to 9:00, but he still needs to be in bed by 8:30 for private reading. It’s non-negotiable.
4) Don’t rush to correct the incorrect words.
For a time, I think it’s important to not correct young children as they read. Our kids were always read a story (or six) at bedtime but even as they started to “read” to themselves and maybe recognize a few words, I did very little to correct them. At that stage I don’t think it’s about getting it right. There is lots of time for that. Instead it’s all about cultivating curiosity and imagination and making that correlation to the fact that there is text on the page. If you’ve heard a 3-year-old “read” a 5 minute story based on a picture, you know what I mean.
5) Make it an adventure.
What better way to read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe than sitting in a forest of lofty trees? Why not read Little House in a field of tall grass? It all brings the story alive and I’m telling you, your kids will think you’re a hero!
6) Set an example.
If kids see you reading good books and are privy to your positive commentary about them, I have to believe they would be more curious about reading in general than the kids who never witness their parents enjoying a good book. I don’t often read books in the presence of my children (let’s face it, it usually happens when they are in bed) but they do see books everywhere, and hear me talk about them. Setting an example is a great way to encourage a love of good books.
7) Be thirsty for knowledge.
Guess what? Just because we’re the grown ups, doesn’t mean we know everything. (Gasp!) We are learning every day too, and that’s a wonderful thing to convey to your kids.
We try to read together as a family several times a week. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s a beautiful thing. This week, I was reading aloud from Prince Caspian when I reached a word I did not know. Not only did I not know what it meant, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. The word was bivouacked.
I tried a couple different pronunciations but both sounded awkward and wrong. I apologized to the kids and said, “Sorry guys, I’ve never seen this word before so I don’t know what it means. Let’s get the dictionary and look it up.” (This is my effort to demonstrate the life-long learning part.) Then G pipes up and says, “No need, Mom. It’s pronounced BIV-ooh-acked and it means to take shelter in a spot. Like on Everest, climbers might have bivouacked in a small opening in the side of the mountain.”
“WHAT???? How did you know THAT?”
“Oh, I read it somewhere.”
(Of course he did.)
8) Be patient.
One of our sons uses noticeably large words and chooses expressions that perhaps aren’t used as frequently as they were say, a hundred years ago. Hearing an occasional thing like “might I partake of that” or “you certainly shall” it is such a joy to me.
Our other son, however, has neither the same vocabulary nor the same love of books (that’s the nature part). He requires more patience and sometimes a bit more pushing, but the expectations are clear. Now he is starting to recognize the more difficult words and is testing them out with us in his own way. His private reading time before bed met some resistance at first, but now it’s something he really enjoys. This morning he proudly told me he is on Chapter 6 of his first Little House book. With him, it’s taken a much longer time to reach this point, but the effort and consistency will pay dividends, I’m sure.
I have intentionally lined our shelves with pages of beautiful language in an effort to help my kids
and use it in their own lives.
And they are. And that is most definitely a Finer Thing.