Here is something that may surprise you: parents who think the primary importance of reading is to be successful in school are less likely to have kids who enjoy reading than parents who see reading primarily as a venue for entertainment.
Did you catch that?
Kids whose parents believe reading is first and foremost a mode of entertainment and enjoyment end up being more voracious readers than those who want their kids to read so that they can succeed in school.
They also end up being better readers. Our attitude about reading and the atmosphere we create in our home matter. Our kids pick up on it — even if we never say anything out loud, even if we aren’t the mother at the library checkout insisting our child put back that copy of The Penderwicks.
It is essential that we communicate with our words, actions, and attitudes that reading is worthwhile for its own sake. Not because it improves us or helps us academically. Not because it helps us become more articulate, score better on college entrance exams, or gives us a cultural understanding of those around us. It does all those things, to be sure, but it is of paramount importance to communicate to our children that reading is pleasurable and worthwhile for the sheer delight of it. We want our kids to, as the distinguished professor of the humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University says, “read at whim.” Jacobs explains reading at whim in his insightful book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a commentary on the importance of reading for the sheer delight of it.
“For heaven’s sake,” Jacobs writes, “don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which we count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout… how depressing.”1
Rather, he tells us, “Read what gives you delight.”2
Reading at whim — that is, reading for the sheer delight of it, may have a bigger impact on the life of your child than you expect.
For many of us, the books we choose to read on our own are the ones that stick with us. It turns out there is nothing magical about a book once it makes it to a grade-level approved list or lands on a teacher’s syllabus. The act of picking up a book and reading it for no other reason than enjoyment can open the door for significant impact.
Food, Glorious Food
Try something for me. Bake a pan of brownies. As the scent drives everyone in your home toward the kitchen in hopeful curiosity, place some small plates and napkins on the table, and pour a pitcher of milk. Set those brownies — luscious, gooey, piping hot — in the center of the table, and open a book. It can be anything: a picture book, middle-grade fiction, a poem. It doesn’t really matter which book it is; just start reading it aloud.
A good story gives shape to the human experience and touches us in our innermost places. It picks us up right where we are and leaves us somewhere else — changed, transformed, more awake and alive and aware.
I can nearly guarantee you will have a table full of people listening in, and they will remember — even well into the future — that you read it with brownies. They will very likely look back on that book with fondness.
I have never been to a grown-up book club meeting that didn’t include food, and yet I so often make my kids’ book-reading sessions feel more like a classroom than a book club.
Why no treats? Why no snacks? Why not throw a big picnic blanket on the grass in the backyard and let everyone dig into a ginormous bowl of popcorn and sip Capri Suns? Why not set the table with china and pass around tea and scones? Why not pull out a package of store-bought cookies and paper plates and gather everyone at the table for a few moments of rest and reading?
I don’t always give my kids snacks while I’m reading aloud, but I do try to manage it on occasion, especially if I’m having trouble wooing anyone into read-aloud time, or if our relationships and interactions have been particularly fraught. Food is comfort, and comfort is a wonderful thing to associate with read-aloud time.
My husband speaks fondly of his own family’s game nights when he was growing up. They played Monopoly, Risk, and other classic board games. But when he tells me stories of his family’s game nights, the games themselves play a minor role in his memory. He mostly remembers the tea, the little bowl of sugar, the gravy boat filled with milk, and the soft, light, sweet coffee cake his mother served.
Tea and coffee cake became a symbol for game night. When my husband drinks tea from a fancy cup, stirs in a swirl of milk, and drops in a pinch of sugar, he thinks of game night. He remembers family time, warm and comforting.
We can do the same with stories. You don’t need to make coffee cake every time you read aloud, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt. Popcorn is my own go-to. It’s quick and easy and everyone likes it, so I often make a giant bowl and put it in the middle of the table while I read.
It can be simple — a box of crackers, store-bought cookies, sliced fruit, a bowl of grapes. Sharing food and gathering around the table means community, friendship, love, laughter, and warmth. That’s what we’re going for, right?
Do we have the courage to admit that the main purpose of reading may in fact be for joy, for the sake of itself? Affection is of great importance when it comes to making connections with our kids through books. When we demonstrate interest in the things that our kids are interested in — and that includes the stories they like — we are communicating love to them.
What I wish I could say to that mom at the library, the one who told her ten-year-old daughter to put The Penderwicks aside in favor of something that would “count” for school, is this: Go get a copy yourself. Read it with her, just for fun. Not because it “counts,” not because she gets credit for it in class, and not even because it will make her a better human being for having read it (though it might).
Read it to waste time with her. Read it for the single purpose of getting lost in a good story alongside your child. Read it to connect. The memories she’ll store from the time you spent that didn’t count for anything other than the joy of connecting — those are the memories she’ll carry with her long into the future. Read with your daughter at whim.
When we create a book club culture at home, we send a crucial message to our children.
We communicate that their reading life matters and that it ought to be a source of joy and delight to them. We allow them the freedom and ability to engage with ideas in the place we want them to love most of all: home. Perhaps best of all, we give them a fighting chance of falling madly in love with the reading life.
- Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 17.
Excerpted with permission from by Sarah Mackenzie, copyright Sarah Mackenzie.
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What books would you love to read with your children? And with what treats?! Come share with us in the comments.