Let the Kids Be

Or, How to get them to read outside the classroom


I HAVE BEEN an avid reader all my life. And I was aghast when my son, then aged three or four, showed little desire to read on his own. He was happy to be read to-but only after copious amounts of TV and many games on many screens.

Reading was a parental thing to do at bedtime, pleasurable enough but not worth fighting for. I bought him books, his school encouraged reading-but there was never that much interest.

Until his school banned a series called Captain Underpants. There was an immediate demand that I buy him a full set-which I did-and they were devoured by him in record time, screens forgotten.

When I think back on my school-days, only a small part of my class liked to read. It is no different today. It is just that reading beyond the classroom has become a school-approved activity, something being encouraged by teachers and parents alike.

Many parents express concern that their kids do not read enough and are spending too much time on screens. The screen bit may be true, but the not-reading-enough worry is perhaps just a product of our modern-parent desire that our children succeed at everything.

And parental encouragement to do something hasn't always made children want to do it.

What makes it worse is that as parents, we try to shape what our children read. We want them to read books that will be useful or worthy in some way-in terms of knowledge or moral lessons. We seem to think that books are a supplement for what we are lecturing the child on anyway-just another Voice of Authority to convince the child what's correct.

But as soon as you set books up as another agency to learn from, kids-who have 'learning is fun' thrust on them till they realize 'fun' is an evil adult concept-will want to run away from them. And this will only be reinforced if you chase after them, saying learn about Our Glorious Heritage, or see the 'fun' way in which the water cycle is explained.

It may be hard for parents to realize-because as a parent, it feels as if every moment of your waking day is taken over by your children-but children are fundamentally powerless. They are physically smaller and vulnerable, they depend on you for everything, and there are very few choices they are allowed to make. So one very simple rule of books that kids tend to like are those that make them feel empowered. Where the child protagonist can make decisions, determine how life is going to be. If you look back at the books you liked as a child, many of them were the ones where kids had their own adventures, took their own decisions, and did their own thing. Because we couldn't, it was deeply satisfying to read of those who could.

If you are the parent of a reluctant reader, be ruthlessly honest with yourself for a moment. Is it that you want your kids to read extensions of their school textbooks? Books that impart information, which is often confused with knowledge, and which will be useful in some tangible way?  

Books are not teachers, they are friends. And just as one sometimes learns things from friends, one sometimes learns things from books. And as with friends, the things we learn are often frivolous, but sometimes they are significant. And we don't really know we have learnt them until we are in a situation where that becomes relevant.

If you want your kids to read:

  • Don't tell them that too much. Show gentle disapproval-not to frighten them off, but so that they get a slight sense of doing something not completely parent-approved.
  • Let your kids pick their own books. Take them to a bookshop and (grumpily) let them pick.
  • Don't make them read books that you read as a child. If they want to later, that's fine. You lived in a different time. Understand this.
  • Remember: There is no boy book or girl book. There is no book for seven-year-olds or twelve-year-olds. Any children's book your child wants to read is fine.
  • Comic books are books too.
  • Don't make your kids read books for any reason but the sheer pleasure of reading. No learning about India's past or Georgia's future. No morals.
  • It is never too late to start. Most kids who don't like to read don't read because they have never found that one book that absolutely spoke to them. Some people never do.
  • It is okay if they read books about messed-up people, people who smoke or drink or use bad language. We do not emulate what we read on the page.
  • If others in the family read and reading is seen as a cool thing to do, your chances of success are greater. If you don't read, it is unrealistic to expect your kids to. They might, but you do not have the moral right to insist.
  • Let your kids be if they say they don't want to read. There are plenty of other fun things to do in life and they might come around later. A lot of people who have never read a book for fun have grown up to be perfectly happy and very successful.
  • Try funny books, they always work. Try to match the books to your child's general interests.



A reluctant reader's go-to list

The Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce, and also the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series: every child's school nightmares made fun of.

Any of Eva Ibbotson's funny fantasy stories: Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13, Monster Mission and more.

Any of Roald Dahl's fabulous books: Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter book series redefined children's books: they draw a child into an intricately constructed magical world and keep them hooked.

The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer gave children's fiction a loveable antihero, a pre-teen supervillain with a heart of gold. Read this to
see the naughty child hero taken to Mogambo levels.

How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell: Already popular because of the fantastic film series, these illustrated books about a young Viking and his charming dragon will capture children's imaginations.

Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo: These beautiful comics about a pair of plucky Gaulish warriors travelling the world and saving their village from the Romans simply refuse to become less relevant with the passing of time.

But best of all-take your child to a bookshop and let them choose.