It seems that when it comes to reading and encouraging intellectual curiosity and exploration in their kids, too many parents are relying on the old adage, Do as I say, not as I do.
The results of this are especially alarming among tweens and teenage children.
According to a long-term study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (2013) there has been a steep decline in how often kids read for fun. Since 1984, the number of 13-year olds who read weekly has dropped from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year old weekly readers went from 64% to 40%.
Looking at it from a different vantage point, back in 1984 only 8% of 13-year olds and 9% of 17-year olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun; Today that number has skyrocketed to 22% and 27% respectively.
It’s scares me to think that the number of non-readers among kids getting ready to graduate from high school has tripled in the last 30 years. Is this why we have such dismal high school graduation rates in some states (like my own state of Florida where it pains me to say that 1 in 4 kids do not graduate from high school).
But what happens to our reading habits once we become adults?
Well, according to a recent study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it doesn’t get any better. The time spent reading per day is as follows (in minutes):
- Age 20 to 24: 10.2
- Age 25 to 34: 7.8
- Age 35 to 44: 11.4
- Age 45 to 54: 15
And that seems to be the crux of the story.
Parents don’t read.
Their children don’t read.
But what would it mean for our children, and our careers, and our organizations, and our country if we could significantly improve this situation?
I don’t think the solution is more governmental intervention. It is within the purview and power of every parent in every household to fix this.
Here are 5 suggestions.
1. Adopt a reader mindset—it’s FREE!
Like many things in life, the first step is to win the battle in our minds. We have to get clear about the importance of reading and make a decision to act— not only for personal enrichment and professional advancement—but for a third powerfully compelling reason: setting an example for your children so they can be successful in school and in life.
Would you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day in front of your children and expect them to reject smoking and live a life free of this toxic addiction?
Of course not.
Likewise, the benefits of reading in children’s lives are clear, voluminous and indisputable, so why wouldn’t you bless your children with a love of books and reading?
Study after study (after study) suggests that children who are independent readers (those who read for fun) do better in school and score higher on standardized tests across all subjects, including math.
Study after study suggests the same: that it’s not race, ethnicity, geography, affluence or any other socio-economic advantage that ultimately ensures your child’s success in school. Instead, it boils down to just one thing: a love of reading inculcated in children by their dutiful parents.
Give them that gift, won’t you please? It costs very little, at least in terms of hard dollars, but makes a world of difference.
Even if you have to fake it till you make it, that’s okay, we’ll take it.
Deciding to act on this may be one of the most fruitful and momentous decisions you’ll ever make as a parent.
Decide to become a reader.
2. Bless and adorn your house with books.
There is a strong correlation between books in the home and kids who read. The more books, the better. According to a Common Sense Media study, kids who were frequent readers (those who read 5+ days per week) lived in a home with 259 books, while infrequent readers (who read less than 1 day per week) had only 169 books in their homes.
Living in a home where you are surrounded by books may not grant your children instant knowledge (you don’t learn through osmosis, as the old joke goes) but it does send an unmistakable message. Books are important. Books are beautiful. In this house, we love books.
3. Let your children catch you reading everyday
Turn off the TV. Sit in your most comfy chair. Open up a book and enjoy its contents for 30 minutes or so. Make sure your children can see what you’re doing. Make this one of your most important daily habits.
You see, our children may not always hear or heed what we say but they pay a lot of attention to what we do. Your actions as a parent speak 10,000 words.
It doesn’t even matter what book you pick up. Big books, little books, picture books, story books, fat books, skinny books. Just pick up a book and read for a few ticks!
If you practice what you preach, your children will get the message and will embrace your behavior as their own (this is what psychologists call the prestige effect at work).
4. Have fun at the book store, together
Who doesn’t like to go shopping?
You just need to make it about books.
Patronize your local bookseller, together. Consider giving your children a separate book allowance so they can select a book from the store and purchase it themselves. And while you consider what you’re going to buy, get a cup of joe at the cafeteria and discuss the books you’re excited about possibly buying and why.
Be intentional about this. Make a big to-do out of it, but make sure your kids don’t get a whiff of pressure or obligation. Keep it fun and enjoyable.
Even if they buy comic books or questionable fiction titles. Let them!
The point is to instill a love of books, and to associate fun and pleasant feelings and experiences with books, not to dictate the types of books they should be reading. Once this is accomplished, and if you think they are limiting their reading choices, you may want to begin gently steering them in different directions (like classic literature and non-fiction). But remember, we learn to crawl before we walk, and must walk before we run.
Don’t rush this.
5. Read to your children and schedule reading time for them
Common Sense Media points to a 2013 Scholastic study that signals a strong correlation between children who are frequent and infrequent readers and parental involvement. It seems 57% of the parents of frequent readers “build time for reading into the child’s daily schedule” as opposed to only 16% of the parents of infrequent readers.
The message is clear. Build time in your children’s daily schedule so they can engage in reading. You may want to sit with them and read alongside them. Or better yet, read to them! Discuss what you’re reading to make it come alive. Create a fun and engaging reading area in your house and decorate it together! Melissa has other great ideas on how to make this fun for you and your child.
But whatever you do, consider making it a predictable and consistent habit or routine that your child looks forward to every day.
Reading for fun is a most precious gift, share it!
This issue of instilling a love of books and reading in kids runs deep with me.
You see, my Father passed away when I was only 10 years old. Despite all the sorrow, grieving and trauma of that experience, I thank God every day for the gift my Dad left me: a love of books.
My Dad taught us that books are almost sacred and would get upset if I so much as laid one on the floor (would you lay the Bible on a dirty floor)? He read to us and explained complex ideas that we encountered in books.
We wrestled with some pretty weighty topics:
“Where does life come from?”
“Can Man create life in a laboratory?”
“Are there extra-terrestrials?”
A well-read, knowledgeable scholar and miliray officer, my Dad always had excellent answers that provoked me to think even further.
He also took his children to book stores and libraries; Bought us books; Bought books for himself. Challenged us to read whole novels in a single summer day and demanded book reports by the time he got home from work, and much more.
When he died, however, my Mother had to raise four kids by herself in a strange land where she did not speak the language (we were refugees of Nicaragua’s civil war of 1979). Despite her superhuman efforts and ceaseless hard work, we were plunged into poverty and welfare.
But no matter how poor we were or how materially disadvantaged we might have been at the time, we never subscribed to the hopeless-helpless mindset of the ghetto.
I had the quiet, dignified example of hard work that I got from my Mother. And I also had the words of my Father, echoed later in the wisdom I absorbed from the American Transcendalists, who counseled that no matter what material possessions we lost, the valuable ideas, knowledge and wisdom that I unlocked from books, synthesized in my brain and stored safely in the file cabinets of my mind, were the real treasure.
And such treasures could never be lost.
In that sense, such individuals are incapable of being truly poor, for they are a part of an honorable and distinguished group…
…the aristocracy of the mind.
That idea has saved my life.
And for that I am eternally grateful to my beloved Father.
And to books, and to all the great thinkers and creative souls who wrote each inspired word upon each blessed page.
That is why I am challenging you, especially if you are a parent, to read and lead.
Go and set an example.
Bless your children with this wonderful gift.