by Ellie Battalora Williams
“A good book is a magic gateway into a wider world of wonder, beauty, delight and adventure.
Books are experiences that make us grow, that add something to our inner stature.”
–Gladys Hunt in Honey for a Child’s Heart
“Hey, Joy,” I call to our 10-year-old, sitting in her favorite chair. I wait a few seconds, but hear no answer.
“Joy!” I say it a bit more emphatically.
Slowly, the book that has been hiding her face moves downward, revealing her eyes that are still following the words on the page. She mumbles a distracted, “Yes, sir.”
“Earth to Joy! This is Mom!”
Rejoining our world, she looks up and realizes her absurd response. Immediately she lets out one of her infectious chuckles that makes it hard for me to stay irritated with her.
In our home, Joy has earned a nickname from her dad: “The Book,” because a novel often appears above her shoulders in place of her head. None of our children enjoy reading more than she does, and that’s saying a lot, because each of our seven children has an appreciation for the written word.
So much of parenting is making decisions today with a view toward tomorrow. The truth is, though, that you don’t always know which decisions will have the lasting effects you envision and which will not. But one of our best decisions—as we look back on nearly two decades of parenting—has been encouraging our children to love the written word.
An early decision
When we learned that I was pregnant with our first child, Scott and I knew that reading would be something that we would choose to value in our family. We had heard research showing that children who read well performed better academically, had fewer behavioral problems, and held a generally better outlook on life. We believed that if we could teach our children not just to read well but to love reading, they could open up the world for themselves.
When children realize that a book can provide access to the world beyond their own, they begin to pursue the things that interest them, intrigue them, or baffle them. The problem is that children don’t naturally gravitate to the things that are best for them. They tend to prefer immediate satisfaction over delayed gratification. They often need to be sold on the value of books and reading. As children’s reading advocate Gladys Hunt writes in her book, Honey for a Child’s Heart, children “don’t stumble onto good books by themselves; they must be introduced to the wonder of words put together in such a way that they spin out pure joy and magic.”
When each of our children was an infant, I made an effort to read to them every day to get them used to the written and spoken word as an important part of their lives. Scott also read to them often, especially at bedtime. It became a special connection time with Daddy. We found that the best times for reading aloud were those quiet times of the day, just before nap or bed.
Dealing with barriers
As those with very active children know, it is easier to corral some children than it is others. Our oldest could sit and listen for hours, but our second couldn’t stay in a lap for two minutes. These active children don’t need to be tied down during reading time—that’s not the way they are wired. When we had reading time, we often allowed our children to play with toys, draw or color, as long as they would be quiet and let others listen.
If a busy temperament is a barrier to reading, electronic entertainment is a downright enemy. As our babies became young children, we severely limited the time they could spend passively watching television, which forced them to play with each other or to read books to entertain themselves.
As they grew older, we often challenged our children to read the book version of a story before they watched the video based on the book. Often, during those videos, they would complain that the movie was not accurate. With few exceptions, when questioned, our children have preferred the book to the movie when they have been exposed to both. (One exception for us has been the Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien’s written descriptions conjure up vivid imagery in the mind, there were elements in the movies that brought the story to life just as vividly.)
Making it personal
Another way we’ve encouraged our children to read has been to take regular trips to the public library. It wasn’t always easy to gather up several young children and keep track of them at the library, but it was always well worth the time. We would allow them to pick out their own books, provided they met Mom and Dad’s criteria: they had to be not just non-objectionable but edifying according to our family standard. Our saying to our children was to ask not “What’s wrong with it?” but “What’s right with it?”
Some people we know have made trips to the mega bookstores a family affair. Even if you can’t afford to buy the books at a bookstore, you can thumb through and sample a variety of works. These bookstores are set up in a more appealing way than in a typical library, inviting a casual and intimate interaction with the thousands of offerings they have on display. And some provide reading areas where parents can snuggle up to a book with their children.
Some of our children are naturally more interested in reading than others. We’ve had some to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy at age 10, while others preferred books that balanced artwork and text until they were well into their teens. The secret is to find the books that will gain the child’s interest and lead him or her to more substantial reading.
Feeding on the Word
The ultimate goal of reading is to be able to feed from God’s Word. Although education and exposure to knowledge can bring them places they could never go, the Bible gives children a framework for making sense of the world and all its competing ideas—some are good for them, and others seek to destroy them. Most of all, it encourages them to establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
We tried to encourage our children’s personal involvement with the Word on several levels. From the earliest of ages, we had family times where we would read a passage aloud. Sometimes it would be accompanied by a story that drove home the point. At other times Scott would teach. We were careful not to make the time too long. We found that when the time dragged on, the children’s appreciation waned rapidly.
Along with reading the Bible aloud to our children, we encouraged them to feed themselves. We made a big deal out of a child’s achievement of finally being able to read on their own. We would present the child with a Bible (usually in a version with pictures that was closer to his or her reading level). We also encouraged them to memorize scripture, usually through family times, or through participation in church activities like AWANA.
The dictates of the calendar versus investing for a lifetime
The busyness of our culture is an enemy to the family enjoying life together. Between parents’ work and responsibilities and children’s activities, most of us have full calendars. Trying to fit a reading routine on an already tight calendar can seem next to impossible.
Remember that routines don’t change overnight. Plan to add reading to your schedule incrementally—a bedtime book here, a family Bible-reading there, a chapter from a classic book on rainy days. What starts off in small portions can grow into a lifestyle if it is something you value as a family. Even if it doesn’t become a major part of your family’s life, a little is better than none at all.
The written and spoken word can be a friend of the family by helping you reclaim time lost to individual pursuits. A book by itself is a good connecting resource. Reading books together (or individually reading the same books) gives the family a common experience that can spark great discussions which can help expand everybody’s horizons.
When you share a book, it’s a shared experience that helps bridge relationships with your children and build bridges to the future.