At the beginning of every school year, a rush of paperwork, newsletters, and homework comes home from my children’s teachers. I have four kids, ranging in age from 7-14. So we’ve been through a lot of school and a lot of teachers. Teachers are qualified professionals who work super hard for lower pay. Also they occasionally wipe the boogers of people not directly related to them. For this, they deserve gobs of awards. Which is why I hesitated to write this post at all. I’m sure the last thing those over-worked, under-paid teachers want or need at this time of year is criticism of any kind.
So we’ll leave the teachers out of this (unless they want to join in; we love you, teachers).
However, to you parents (also a little over-worked, over-stressed, and under paid; also wipers of boogers), consider this Public Service Announcement: There is some advice teachers give you that isn’t the best. Oh, it might be great advice FOR teachers. It might be great to use in the CLASSROOM. But for you parents at home, trying to instill a love of reading into your children’s sweet little hearts, well, sometimes the advice given from teachers just isn’t quite what you need.
If asked what their main goal is for their children’s reading, most parents (and teachers) would say that they want their kids to learn to love reading, to be able to use and enjoy it throughout their lives.
And yet. Often, as parents, this isn’t what we’re teaching. And often, as teachers, this isn’t what we’re encouraging.
When I get a newsletter from a teacher telling me to read with my kids every night, I’m totally cool with it. It’s good advice. It’s the BEST advice. There’s nothing better than cuddling up together and reading an interesting or funny or magical story that will encourage kids to love reading, to be able to use and enjoy it throughout their lives.
But when I get a newsletter that tells me to read with my child every night and then discuss the main idea of the story we read, or to repeat the verbs in the book, or to go over how the story had a beginning, middle, and end, well, then I just want to shove my head in a bin of ice cream. There are many reasons for this (one of which is that ice cream tastes good), but the biggest one is that reading in this way with our young (or even older) children is not fun. It’s not fun for me and–guess what–it’s not fun for them. Sure there are things in life we do that aren’t fun. Like cleaning toilets. Reading does not need to be one of these things. Most of us would not say that we hope our children leave the public education system after 13 years of schooling feeling the same way about reading as they do about Pine Sol and poop smears. For most of us, this is not the goal (if it is your goal, how on earth did you find this blog).
Fortunately, most parents are too lazy to cover theme and story construction with our kids, so we just read the story.
(Unfortunately, such prescriptive, school-like reading suggestions or requirements might discourage parents from reading to their children at all.)
But to all you over-achievers out there ready to discuss theme and symbol with your second-grader, let me just tell you: Don’t.
Just stop. Cuddle up. Read a book. Use your monster voice if you will. Employ a silly hand motion if that’s your thing. Tickling is cool. Or just–what the heck–read the words. But don’t talk about it. Don’t dissect it in any way. Just enjoy it. And then let it be.
There will be times and places for literary deconstruction. There will be opportunities for essays about the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. But guess what? Your kids will never get there if they hate to read. They’ll never pick up a book outside of high school or college. With each book, they’ll feel pressure, the weight of expectation. They’ll probably go find a toilet to clean instead.
Besides, there are only a few short years for you to sit with your child and read a book. My years like that are coming to a close and so I give this advice with a drop of warning. This time is brief. It is fleeting. It is beautiful and lovely and good. But it will end. Do not use it to teach like a teacher. Use it to teach like a parent–through modeling (do you read? If not, put your kid’s book down and pick up one of your own) and through enjoyment.
If there’s a better feeling than cuddling up to a parent, listening to his or her familiar and loved voice read a good story, then I don’t know what it is. If you read to your children, they will learn to love reading. Maybe one day they’ll go on to earn advanced degrees in literature. Maybe not. But they’ll use reading to explore the world, to enjoy the world, to find empathy for the people in the world. They’ll discover; they’ll learn; they’ll grow. They’ll become fuller people than they were without reading.
And that, my friends, is the goal.
So send your teachers some lovingly picked flowers, or a good box of chocolate if you want to, but don’t “Make the Most of Reading Minutes.” Instead, just “Have Reading Minutes.”
You’ll find that they make the most of themselves.