The American cosmologist Carl Sagan once said that “one of the greatest gifts adults can give—to their offspring and to their society—is to read to children.” Indeed, reading is perhaps the greatest shortcut to self-improvement. Most of us intuitively know this but still, we struggle to find or make the time for it ourselves. We struggle more to get our kids to do it.
Watching TV is easier. Playing video games is easier. Giving them the iPad is easier. Because of this, it can feel difficult to help your children want to make reading their go-to. To that end, we’ve put together a few tips that will help you make reading a part of your child’s life now and hopefully for the rest of their lives. In the words of Margaret Fuller “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
Have Books At Home
Look, we get it: the iPad is a magical device. It can quiet even the craziest kid. It can take them into a world of learning and exploration that is literally miraculous. Best of all, most of this content is free!
Books on the other hand are not free and they take up so much space. Lugging them around can be a pain. You’re a grown-ass person. Do you really have to read about why dragons love tacos again? Or what Frodo is going to do with that stupid ring? And read it with the excited tone of a voice-over actor?
Yes. The answer is yes. If you want your child to be a reader, your house and your life must be filled with books. Good ones. Silly ones. Annoying ones. Used ones. New ones. Reading is part of the job. “A house without books is like a room without windows,” Horace Mann once said. “No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.”
It may be easier to sit them in front of a television set, but we’re not in this because it’s easy. We want to be great. We want them to be great. And that means reading. That means spending money on books. That means displaying them prominently in your house—even if it violates your minimalistic tendencies. It means taking them to libraries and independent book stores and not wincing at the $26.99 price tag of a 17 page book with 100 words in it.
Reading is fundamental and great dads are fundamentalists about it.
Let Them See You Read
We want our kids to read. Certainly much more than we want them to spend their days on social media or watching mindless youtube videos. So we make up rules or create incentives to motivate them to pick up a book (I’ll give you a dollar for every book you finish this year).
What we don’t do enough is actually the easiest and clearest form of teaching: We don’t provide a good example.
How often do your kids catch you reading? How often do they see you with a book in your hands? You want them to read, but do you read to them regularly? You tell them books are important, that books are fun, but where is the evidence?
If you want your kids to read more, show them what a reader looks like. Talk to them about books. Make books a central part of your house…and your lives. Think about those curse words they know. You’ve actually been trying to get them not to use them…but where did your kids pick them up? By watching you.
Remember: A little fellow follows you and what’s true for books is true for just about anything—being healthy, being kind, being a hard worker.
Don’t Baby Them When It Comes to Books
It’s interesting to think about the steady decline in expectations for our kids when it comes to reading. Sure, we want them to be able to read earlier than ever, but what about what they read?
Not long ago, kids were taught Latin and Greek so they could read the classics…in their original languages. Think of Aesop’s Fables. Think of children being read Plutarch’s Lives by their parents. This is heavy stuff. And purposefully so. Because when you read old school books, what you’re really doing is acquainting yourself with the obscure yet illustrative figures from the ancient world while also displaying a willingness to wrestle with timeless and morally complex topics.
There is a quote from George Orwell, which dates to the early 20th century, that illustrates how much things have changed. “Modern books for children are rather horrible things,” he said, “especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.”
How many adults even know who Petronius is? (He was a writer who lived in the court of Nero). And how many adults today probably winced at the idea that a book should teach kids how to be manly? Even the idea of wholesomeness is controversial! Wholesome according to whom? The white male patriarchy? The west? The Judeo-Christian tradition?
This is how the discussion devolves these days. Is it any surprise then that the children and young adult sections of today’s bookstores are filled with so much infantilizing escapism, fantastical melodrama, ie just plain absurd nonsense? The curmudgeons among us want to blame millennials and Gen Z for this. Their laziness and faltering tastes are why we’re awash in this stuff.
But do you really believe our kids are dumber than the kids of Orwell’s time? Or back before that? Of course not! They’re kids. We’re the problem. Parents. Adults. Educators. Publishers. As a collective, we’ve stopped believing our kids are capable of reading challenging books. So we provide them with “kids editions” and give them silly picture books, instead of helping them build their reading muscles, and then we wonder why they can’t handle heavy stuff.
Well stop it. Push them. Push yourself. They aren’t babies. Or at least they shouldn’t be after they’ve learned to read for themselves.
Read Them The Great Books
One of the joys…and the curses…of fatherhood is reading children’s books. Some are good. Some are terrible. Some might have been good the first time you read them, but by read 651 you want to gouge your eyes out.
But you read to them because it’s important. The books don’t matter, the time does…until eventually the books do matter.
One of the advantages of the ancient world was that they didn’t have so many silly children’s books or young adult novels. All they had were what we now call “the classics.” So kids weren’t just reading silly books about dragons or purple novels about vampires. They were reading and learning from the greatest poets and authors who ever lived—whose books talk about the big issues.
Xenophon, a Greek writer who would go on to be a general and a student of Socrates, recounts a pretty incredible fact about his childhood—incredible for how unremarkable it was for its time. “My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man,” he wrote, “and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer; and so even now I can repeat the whole Iliad and the Odyssey by heart.”
Can you imagine your kids doing that? Probably not. Who knows, maybe it’s too much to ask these days. But what you can do is at least expose them to these classic texts. You can make these texts a part of their life.
Don’t wait for their school to do it—because they won’t (they probably won’t even show them the movie either). Don’t expect kids to find a passion for it on their own, because videogames and social media are way easier and more gratifying. You have to teach them. You have to make them excited. And that’s probably going to start with you getting excited first—with Dad leading by example once again.
Pass On Stories To Inspire Them
Do you know the story of Cincinnatus? The Roman general who had retired to his farm until he was called to rescue his country from an invasion. Made dictator in these desperate times, he had unlimited power, which he used to save the empire…only to immediately relinquish the power and return to his farm.
Is the story true? Does it matter? George Washington knew this story—it was almost certainly read to him as a boy—and modeled his life on it. From this legend came real history, it shaped Washington’s life and the life of the country he helped found.
The same goes for the story of Washington and the cherry tree. Is it true? Probably not. But for generations, children were taught this story and it shaped real lives and the country they lived in.
Today, we don’t tell these stories enough. Children’s books are all about robots and talking dogs. Or they are preposterously inappropriate totems for parents to virtue signal with (who thought this book was a good idea??) History books as kids get older are all about facts, they’re all about punching holes in things, in showing how the heroes of the past were all racists and hypocrites.
And then we wonder why we live in a world devoid of courage. Where irony reigns and inspiration is replaced by nihilism. Of course these things are gone. There is only one way to get them back: By telling your children of Cincinnatus. Teach them the legends and myths of the path. Show them what greatness looks like, even if it’s through the haze of hagiography. Give them someone to look up to and a book they can come back to.
Show Them What They’ll Get Out Of This
Most schools and most parents teach reading all wrong. They bully kids into doing it. They pressure them. They tell them, “Reading is what smart and successful people do.” Then they’re surprised when kids who struggled with reading don’t think they’re smart, and they wonder why kids almost wear illiteracy as a badge of honor. They wonder why people say things like, “I haven’t read a book since I was forced to in high school.”
No, the way to teach a kid to read is not to talk about how wonderful literature is and force them to read fancy or pretentious novels. You teach a kid to love books by—as the great lover of books, Robert Greene has said—by appealing to their self-interest. Show them what they will get out of books. Tangibly. Immediately. Show them that quote from Warren Buffet, where he says the single best investment he ever made was buying a copy of Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor.
Better yet, find them a book that will have a big payoff for them. Joe Biden has talked about how reading about Demosthenes helped him overcome his stutter—you think an experience like that, early on, doesn’t turn a person into a reader for life? Find them books that will entertain them. That will help them get a boy a girl to like them. That will make them laugh. That will piss their teachers off.
Focus on the ROI—because that’s what books are: investments. You put down a few dollars, commit several hours, and you get something back. In some cases, that might be a lovely experience with the English language, but for most books and most readers, the reason for reading is far more tactile. It’s about learning a skill. It’s about feeling less alone. It’s about improving yourself. It’s about solving a problem.
To get your kids to read, you have to be a reader, of course. But you also have to show them what they will get out of books. Or else why would they bother?
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