5 Steps to Take Your Child from Media Zombie to Engaged Reader
I travelled many places growing up.
I went to the world’s largest chocolate factory that was only accessible with a golden ticket.
I became friends with a girl named Fern who was trying to save a runt pig.
I even went back and experienced primitive times on the prairie.
From my little small-town Indiana home, I could go anywhere with a good book. When I was reading those classic books, I was learning new vocabulary, I was learning about geography, I was expanding my worldview. I didn’t know this when I was young, I just knew I loved reading! And when I became a parent myself I knew I wanted my kids to love reading.
We have read to our children since they were babies. I think this has established a basis for them loving a good story. They love when daddy uses silly voices and the suspense that hangs in the air while you turn a page. I am a huge advocate for reading to your children. But that’s not where I am going here.
As our oldest learned to read on her own, we saw that just reading to her was not enough to make her love reading herself. There seemed to be a disconnect and a lack of desire to take the leap from passively listening to devouring the books herself. Last spring I realized I had a child who could read, but had no desire to read. I’ll be honest, this kind of broke my heart. I was not content to just say, “Oh well, reading is not her thing” and move on. I knew something needed to change. I knew I needed to take action.
When I was growing up my parents did not have to come up with a plan to make me love reading. I was a youngest child and I constantly saw the other people in my house reading and I wanted to read. I remember sitting with a pile of Berenstain Bear books and looking through pictures while the other four members of my family all sat with “real chapter books” on quiet week nights and I just couldn’t wait until I was old enough to do that too. Okay, I know I’m a nerd and this scenario might have been a bit weird even back in the late Eighties, but I cannot imagine this happening in too many living rooms in today’s culture!
So what has changed?
A lot has changed. But I think the glaring truth is, screens have invaded our kid’s lives. I know this sounds all doom and gloom, as if I think technology is the devil. I don’t think that at all. But I think the advancement of technology and amount that children are exposed to it has hugely impacted their attention span, interest levels, and lives in general.
I said that reading to my kids made them love a good story, but so did watching an exciting episode of Paw Patrol. They could be just as entertained by holding a tablet and watching a show or playing a game as they would be reading a book, and they didn’t have to think nearly as much to watch the show. The problem came when I told them to turn off that show and they either threw a fit or had no idea what to do on their own to have fun. They had a playroom full of toys, desk full of art supplies and shelf full of books, but they were constantly at a loss of what to do. I started realizing I was raising kids dependent on being entertained in an easy, fast way. And I didn’t like it.
Fortunately, I also realized my kids were still very young. I knew there was still plenty of time to make changes. I knew that technology was not the only problem. We made some changes in habits and I got a little more intentional about learning my own child, and it worked!
These are the steps we took:
- Limit Technology Time
This seems like an obvious first step. If you want to keep your children from being dependent on technology for entertainment, you need to keep them away from the technology. It sounds so simple. Yet this is probably the hardest step for us as the parents. Technology is easy. Technology is convenient. And chances are, your child already loves playing games or watching shows on their tablet, phone, or the TV.
When I got serious about wanting our oldest to love reading, we went on a 30-day no-screens adventure as a family. Yikes, this just got personal. If I wanted to detox her from the constant flow of images and screen time, I knew I needed to do it myself. Kids are excellent imitators. They also are excellent at pointing out hypocrisy. My husband and I were both on board to set a good example. Together we did 30 days of no TV, video games, or computer games and very little phone usage. We had a few exceptions—texting and face timing, business on the computer, or family movie nights. But we locked up the kindles for a month and told our kids they had to find a different way to entertain themselves.
Fortunately, we are at the stage in parenting where we can unplug the TV and hide the tablet and our kids don’t have a way of going around the system. As your kids get older, I’m sure this is harder to inforce. This is where you have to be determined. Your kid will throw a fit. They won’t like that you have taken their favorite toy away. The more reliant they were on the device before, the bigger the tantrum will be when you take it away.
But please, take this to heart—you are not depriving your child!
If the tears and the constant begging begins to wear down your resolve, take a moment to Google the effects of technology on a young child’s brain. (oh wait, that uses a screen, you better do it before you begin and print the article out!) There are studies that compare the use of screens to the use of heroin and the results are scary-similar.
However, all the articles I have read have also said that screen addiction might actually be harder to break and cure than drug addiction! What?! Mama, if your 5-year-old was hooked on cocaine, would you give up the detox a week in just because it was just too hard on them? No way!
As hard as that beginning week may be, keep the end goal in mind. During the thirty days, I actually saw my daughter blossom into a voracious reader! It was kind of amazing to watch. Now is this guaranteed to happen on a technology break? No, of course not. But your child might become a Lego-building maniac, or a dedicated artist, or develop their creativity in ways you did not even see coming. Be ready to notice these new developments and praise them like crazy when they happen!
I know I compared screens to a drug, but the problem is the addiction to the screen, not the screen itself. Technology is neither good nor bad—it is a tool. After the total break from technology, we brought it back in moderation. We use wisdom now to try to guard our kids from that addiction. They use their Kindles two evenings a week when we have company over and we basically need a babysitter. They can watch TV on Fridays when their brains and emotions are tired from a long week at school. And sometimes this mama just needs to get some work done uninterrupted and they get to watch a show or movie.
We don’t have strict rules on technology. I think it’s fun. I think it’s useful. I think it is important for my kids to know how to use it. But more than anything, I think it needs to have an appropriate place in their hearts and priorities. In order for our family to get to that appropriate place, we had to start extreme.
- Discover Your Child’s Genre
Once your child is detoxed from technology and in a place where their creativity is awake, next you must begin to foster that love of reading. At this point the question becomes, what books would my child actually enjoy? You can start by asking for recommendations or doing a Pinterest search for ideas. It’s a great start to find a general list on the Internet of ‘Books 7 year-old Girls Love’.
But not all seven-year-old girls are the same. Remember, I knew our daughter could read, she just didn’t want to read. So, we looked at her interests. The girl loves animals! She also loves make believe—fairies and magic. Once we combined those two loves and found some books on magical creatures and animals—she was engaged!
As her love developed and she read more and more she reached a point where her ability outreached her maturity. She could be have begun reading larger, more challenging books. But she was still seven-years-old and still loved short books about magical animals and people that get swept off to their land. I knew her time for bigger, more mature books would come, but I didn’t push it. The goal here was for her to enjoy reading.
- Become Friends with your Local Library
We knew that short, magical books was our daughter’s sweet spot. The problem is that she can read one of those books in a night.
How do we keep fresh reading material for her without going broke? Use your local library!
Create a love of the library in your children. Most libraries have story times you can take your kids to when they are young. Make it a fun adventure to pick out books. Get to know the librarian by name. Let them know what types of books your children like so they can help.
Our local library is very small, so we checked out all of the fairy books and animal books there in a very short time! But they have an interlibrary sharing system with the entire county. So, when she finds a new book she likes and finds out it’s one of a series, we let the librarian know and we pull in books from all over! It’s an endless free stream of books at your fingertips.
I often check out a few books outside of her normal genre, just to see if she’s changing. Sometimes she reads them, sometimes she doesn’t. But I haven’t wasted any money if she looks at the cover and turns it down. Not only are we saving money with the library, but space as well. If you’re a mom who dislikes clutter, this is a great way to get books in your kid’s hands without having to find a place to put the large collection they are growing.
- Set Attainable Goals and Rewards
Our girl began reading like crazy in the Spring. When summer holiday came around, I decided to challenge her. I told her she would earn £1 for every book she read. Money is a powerful motivator. Pick a reward you know your child will love, but be careful that it does not reinforce the wrong thing.
If 20 minutes of reading is rewarded with 1 hour on the tablet, you are not lessening the pull of technology on your child’s heart. I’m not a big fan of using food as a reward either, but do what works for you.
Summer holiday was six weeks long, we were gone for two of those weeks, I thought money was a reasonable reward. In those four weeks, she read 39 chapter books! Yikes! I don’t think we will be using money as a motivator for reading anymore—I can’t afford it!
The point is to find what motivates your child and go for it. What motivates your child may change as they grow and their ability grows. Don’t try to get it perfect from the beginning, just start with a small goal and small reward and work your way up.
Prize boxes work well for our kids at their current ages (seven and four). You could let them choose a small prize for every 100 pages read or 500 pages read as they grow. If you have multiple reading age children or a community of friends you can use competition as motivators as well. See who can read the most pages or books in a month, have a group ice cream party if they can read 100 books together over the summer.
Why limit parties and group goals to schools and classrooms? Bring the celebration home!
Once they start reading, don’t be conservative with your praise! If you really want your children to love reading, reinforce that with your words and face. After they finish a book, have a special date with that child to discuss the book. Make two hot chocolates and sit down at the table and listen as they describe all the events of the book. Ask them what the character’s names were, who in the book they liked the best, why they liked them.
Let your children relive the story in their own words.
If you are a reader yourself, you know you are never quite ready to exit that make-believe world in your head when you finish a book. Let your child stay there a little longer.
I’ll be honest here, magical creatures are not my genre (unless we are talking Harry Potter!). A story about a Pegasus who injures its hoof is not really peaking my interest. But for the ten minutes it takes my daughter to tell me all about the book, I act like it is the coolest thing I have ever heard.
We don’t discuss every book she reads, sometimes she is not in a talkative mood, but this gift of your attention and time can be a powerful reward for your child.
One last tool we use to track reading and rewards is goodreads.com. This is a free site run by Amazon where you can record all the books you have read and review them. I set our daughter up with a private account (there is a social aspect that we don’t use) at the beginning of the year when she set a goal to read 100 books within the year. There is a tracker for your own personal reading challenge. She loves going in and recording which books she has read and watching the progress percentage go up. As she records what she has read, there are suggestions on the side of books that she may like. This has been a helpful tool for her as well.
5) Set the Example
I touched on this earlier when talking about limiting technology, but I want to end by restating the importance of this. It was up to me, and my husband, to set the example of what would be important in our home.
In our family, I had to look at myself when I was questioning why my daughter was so addicted to technology. I went back to that same weeknight scenario in my childhood home, the one I talked about earlier. I compared the old image of my family sitting around reading books to the current situation in my adult home I was creating. My husband and I on our phones while the kids either ran around crazy or sat in front of their own screens. There was a constant cry of my heart that there wasn’t enough time in the day all while I spent countless hours scrolling through social media feeds.
I know that my children are their own little people with their own big personalities and hearts with very real desires, but they are a product of me. I don’t say this to guilt myself and for sure I do not say it to shame you if you have a child you are struggling with. (I have had many struggle moments, weeks, even years!)
I say this because I am passionate about having a healthy life and a healthy family. By ‘healthy’ I mean our bodies, our souls and our family rhythms. All these areas are important and they all take work. This health depends on a lot of balance. The funny thing about balance is you can’t just find it once and live out the rest of your life balanced. Balance is about constantly readjusting and changing to fit your needs. Keeping a balance requires action.
What action does your family need you to take?
Do you need to sit down with your partner and decide on a social media break?
Do you need to set aside ten minutes each day this week with your child to learn what they are interested in and encourage those interests?
Do you need to take a trip to your library and check out a book?
Maybe you can schedule a no-technology reading night tonight. (Seek and Find books are great for young non-readers on these nights.)
Whatever you decide, comment below and let me know. And give me your ideas! What works to motivate your kids to read? What books are they reading right now? I’m always looking for more ideas.
Note: All of these fun photos of our family reading together were part of our family photos last fall photographed by the amazing Hannah K Photography