Introduction: How to Turn Your Kids Into Bookworms

About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-pur…

We all want our kids to do well. We want them to succeed academically and socially, we want them to be good, empathetic human beings and later, responsible citizens. We want them to be happy.

Humans are complicated though, and it's hard for any one of us to achieve all those things at once... so one way to achieve these lofty goals is to turn your kid into a much simpler life form: a bookworm.

Reading provides a safe escape, it teaches empathy, vocabulary, and provides guidance for navigating complicated social situations. Although the love of reading and learning is innate, it can still be be taught and encouraged and by following these simple steps.

Step 1: Books and Lots of Them

Books can become an expensive habit, but you need to have a lot around, and get new ones regularly or even an avid reader will eventually tire of the same stories. The first and cheapest solution is, of course,

Public libraries

Go to the library, hand out there to read or take the books home. In the hot summer days, libraries are particularly nice places to hang out. Cool and quiet, many of them offer activities such as readings, tutoring, and classes, as well as programs to distribute free books to take home and keep.

Second excellent solution to the cost of books is buying them second hand

I think the idea of a spanking new book is over-rated. As long as the book doesn't smell of mildew and the pages hold together, who cares?

Ebay or Craisgslist won't save you much money, because of shipping charges or the hassle of picking up a single volume from across town. Church sales, stoop sales, thrift shops, and friends with older children are great sources for books in bulk. In my neighborhood lots of people also offer books for free: they put a box on the stoop with a "take me!" sign for walkers-by. I live in an apartment building with a common laundry in the basement. Next to the washing machines there's a bookcase which serves as a free book-exchange. Residents leave books for their neighbors, and take them at will. If you don't have an informal "library" like this in your building you might be able to set one up.

Step 2: You Can Never Have Too Many Books...

... but you can have too many toys!

When buying birthday or Christmas presents, make sure you buy more books than toys. Kids might THINK they want toys more, but in fact, they will spend much more time with a book than a remote control car.

This is the time to get the new release, the beautiful expensive hard cover. Borrow library and and buy second hand books as much as possible throughout the year, then get the really nice new ones on special occasions: your kids will value them all the more.

Step 3: Care

Teach your child to treat books with care and respect, with a particular emphasis on handling library books carefully. Throwing a book is equivalent to hitting or biting a sibling, and the punishment for doing so should be equally harsh. Nowadays I take money from their allowance, to pay for any damage or buy a new book, but when they were younger and couldn't read on their own my threats were particularly frightening:

"If you don't behave I won't read to you!" I almost never carried this threat out, because it got results: reading time was precious not just for the stories we read, but for the excuse of curling up on the sofa together to forgive and forget all the mishaps of the day.

Kids need to learn to treat books well, but babies WILL rip pages. As long as this is accidental do not reprimand them harshly for this mistake or they might learn to stay away from books altogether.... instead you might involve them in the repair of the book. Give them the job of fetching the tape for you.

Step 4: Start Early

Read to them, but let them "read" on their own, even when they can't.

When they are beginning to read by themselves, start reading them a good book, then jump off to cook dinner, or make a phone call at the most exciting moment. Leave the book nearby and tell them sternly:

"DON"T read ahead!"

(of course if you are one of those parents whose annoyingly obedient children actually listen to what you tell them, forget this piece reverse psychology)

Step 5: Be Messy

Every once in a while my boys get stuck in a rut reading the same books or series over and over. Though I try not to be too judgmental about their choices, some of the manga books they occasionally favor as so vapid I can't bear to read more than a few pages.... so I'll mess up the house. I'll put Tom Sawyer on the coffee table, The Borrowers in the bathroom, or Cheaper by the Dozen by their bed. I'll be careful not to tell them to read these books -- at their age (8 and 11) that's a sure fire way of having them be rejected -- but when I leave the books out (especially in the bathroom) my boys invariably get hooked.

On occasion this will happen accidentally. I had bought a Houdini biography for myself, but before I managed to get to it my 11 year old had nabbed it. After a brief argument we compromised and used two bookmarks. Be careful what you leave around, once you've got a bookworm on your hands they will read anything!

I will also reorganize their bookshelves every so often, putting my favorites front and center, with the manga neatly arranged on the top shelf.

Step 6: Read Everywhere

Hand held game players are touted as ideal travel companions, and given the choice my boys will choose video games over books 98% of the time. So if you're serious about getting them to read, don't give them the choice! When you're dragging your kids around as you go shopping, leave the game player at home and take a book instead (or if you want to be devious about it, make sure the device is not charged...).

Whenever you leave the house, bring a couple books. The kids will read in the car, bus or subway. They will read as you wait in line at the supermarket or when you get measured for a suit. Where ever you are, whatever you are doing they will read if you just hand them a book (and there's nothing else to do).

Step 7: Digital Competition

A video game offers instant excitement and gratification. TV provides escapism without any effort. The internet is a fascinating source of tidbits of information and endless distractions without the need for in depth research. A book, on the other hand, requires time, effort and the ability to concentrate before you can sink into the story. No wonder publishers are struggling so much!

The only way I have found to compete with digital distraction is to regulate them strictly. Theoretically, my boys are only allowed 30 minutes of screen time a day: in practice this usually turns to 90 minutes, because I have two boys. When one plays his allotted video game time, the other watches... there goes an hour. Then, as a reward for particularly good behavior, my husband will give them 15 minutes of "extra" time. Though I don't particularly approve of this, it does make piano practice a bit less painful... Rules are necessary, but bending the rules once in a while is important too. The basic principle is they should never be allowed to have more screen time than reading time. They want to watch a show on TV? Fine. Read a book for thirty minutes, then watch your half hour show. You do need to be careful with this approach however, because you run the risk of turning reading into a chore. I find it easier just to say "no TV, you've already used up your time" but if they propose the reading exchange deal I will sometimes agree to it.

Another way of regulating digital consumption is through home design. Never put a TV in a kid's room. Don't put a computer in a kid's room or store the portable gaming devise in there either. All these devises should be in the shared space of the house where you can monitor their use. When you give the child a time out, send him (or her) to a space which contains only books or physical toys.

Step 8: Audiobooks

Although I did love reading out loud to my children, before they could read themselves their curiosity and appetite for stories very often was too much for my vocal cords. It is hard to read for more than 20 minutes straight, and they would have happily listened to 2 to 4 hours a day. This is where technology came in handy: I started out by recording myself as I read to them, but this ended up being more work than I anticipated (being a perfectionist, I would edit my recordings to remove stutters and interruptions, then I started recording music to accompany the stories and it quickly got out of hand). Soon I discovered, which saved me. There are other places to get audiobooks (including CDs at public libraries) but audible makes it so easy, and instantly gratifying that it's hard to resist. They always offer various incentives to sign up, but right now you can get 2 free books if you sign up for a 30 day trial (by the time you click on that link the offers might be different...).

Here are some audiobooks advantages:

You are no longer tied down to one spot and can move and do other stuff (like drawing, bouncing on a ball or standing on your head). Most kids can't sit still and read for more than an hour or two, but they can listen to a book for MUCH more time if they're able to move around. My older son's record is about 10 hours straight. I forced him to stop and go outside, but I was only able to do so after I put his book on an ipod and dragged him out by the earbuds....

Beginning readers are often interested in stories which exceed their reading abilities. By the time they can read "Good Night Moon" their interests have moved on to bigger and better stories. Audiobooks help keep them interested, and also help them improve their reading ability dramatically, especially when you give them the text to follow as they listen.

The performances very often add a wonderful layer to the text, and it's fun to listen together to one story, rather than having everyone buried in their separate books.

This brings me to a slight drawback:

Younger siblings are not always ready to listen to the stories older kids enjoy -- Harry Potter got a little too scary for my younger son. He would go isolate himself in another room and close the door, but it turned him off the series (and chapter books in general) for quite a while. If not everyone is enjoying it, resort to headphones.

Step 9: Electronic Readers

When we first bought the Kindle, ebooks were much cheaper than their paper cousins, and we saved quite a bit of money. Thought that advantage has all but vanished, it is still hard to beat their convenience, especially when traveling. Being able to carry a trunk-full of books (and magazines, and newspapers) in a single light device, AND have the ability to instantly purchase any other book, wherever you happen to find yourself is simply amazing, even when you love, as I do, the smell and feel of good paper.

In the Kindle vs. iPad debate, I must say, although the Kindle feels positively antique (no touch screen?!? no color?!?) that if your goal is reading, the Kindle is much better. Much easier on the eyes, much more like an actual book. Plus, although you CAN search the web and get email it will not distract you the way an iPad will.

Update: things have evolved quite a bit since I wrote this originally. Now you can read eBooks using the Kindle reading app on most devices and they will synch up when you switch between your other device and your (touch screen!!!) Kindle. It's good for cutting down on the number of electronics you carry around so it's convenient, but I still like the dedicated black and white front lit screen for reading. Go ahead, call me old fashioned....

Step 10: Snacking

A nice side effect of being both hungry and absorbed in a book is that kids will eat the healthy food they would normally never touch. As they're reading I'll quietly put down a bowl of carrots in front of them. If they notice me they will complain, but before they know it, somehow, the bowl is empty. Then come dinner I don't have to harass them about eating vegetables because they already did.

Step 11: Safety Precautions

Rule #1. Never let a child cross the street while reading a book.

Rule #2 If you are unable to enforce rule#1, force the child to look up before crossing, and then guide him across like a blind person. Reading is like sleepwalking, he is in another world. Try to be kind and wake him up gently.

Rule #3 If you let your child out by himself, make sure he is not carrying any books, or, if he is, put the book is a plastic bag, sealed with a knot, and give strict instructions not to open the bag till he reaches his destination.

Step 12: Light

Some parents might not agree with me on this point, they might feel a strict lights-out and bedtime is important. I figure I'm strict with screen time and with snacks, so there should be one area where I do not place limits on my kids. I let them read as long as they want to, and I even provide them with a small LED lamp to read in bed. No need to waste batteries with flashlights under the blankets... They don't stay up all night, but sometimes they will fall asleep on the book. It's OK, drool can be wiped off.

Having good reading light is important, and I have posted two instructables on the subject, one made of mahogany, the other with a tin can. LED bulbs are perfect for kids reading lights, because they don't get burning hot and their light is directional and not too bright: it will light up the page, but not the room.

Step 13: Choosing a Good Book

As long as the boys are engaged, I reason, why try to impose my taste? But the fact is I can't help myself, I do consider some books better than others. Thomas the Train stories make me feel physically ill, especially when compared to classics like Go Dog Go. Eventually, with a finite amount of shelf space, my favorites books always end up winning... that's the advantage of being the one to clean and to hold the purse strings...

I started trying to compile a list of favorite books, but it was getting too long... instead I'll just give a piece of advice about gender: try to introduce kids to books featuring main characters of the opposite gender before the age of 7... after that they tend to become much more resistant. I was able to get my sons to read (and love) the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, the Betsy Tacy books (Maud Hart Lovelace) and even A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett), but now they would never allow themselves to be seen in public reading books about girls...

Step 14: Benign Neglect

This is the last and most important step. In New York City, where coveted pre schools are more competitive than Ivy League Colleges, parents, desperate to give their progeny a leg up, will stop at nothing: music, sports, tutors, languages and arts are crammed into toddlers lives. Elementary students are too booked to have play dates, kids lives are so structured if they happen to have a few hours free they don't have a clue about how to occupy themselves... Though I am occasionally wracked with doubt and guilt, I have very consciously resisted this trend, and obey the rules of what I optimistically call "benign neglect"

1. Never sign a child up for more than two activities a week (including weekends).

2. It is OK to out on "adventures" (museums, zoos, activities in Park, bowling, etc) but make sure there are plenty of days when nothing is planned.

3. When at home on those "do nothing" days, studiously ignore attempts to get your attention. No monopoly. No Uno. Respond to any request with a vague “in a minute, honey” while carefully avoiding eye contact.

Eventually your children will tire of playing with legos, and they will even tire of bickering with each other. After a time of eery silence you can creep out with your camera and snap a picture of them, reading.

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