For years my daughter and I have been working diligently to see that children’s literature, and increasingly and more urgently, that reading itself does not disappear from the life of a child. Here is one way to accomplish this.
I am old enough to remember having many friends who did not have television in their home yet, old enough to remember a time when there were only three channels to choose from. I grew up with TV and can still tell you which night of the week my favorite programs were broadcast. Those days are long gone. Television is now not just in our home, but in our cars, restaurants, and every waiting room from the dentist’s to the auto mechanic’s, and we have many more handy gadgets for our entertainment, so many choices of what to watch it would take an entire day just to scan through the possibilities.
This is the atmosphere of our lives. I do not intend to rehash the arguments for how TV, with its constant barrage of sound and images, supplants your child’s impulses to use his own imagination, contributes to his lack of enthusiasm for play let alone reading, monopolizes our attention, and robs us of our free time. There are already countless books and studies on the subject that describe the astronomical number of hours spent passively viewing screens and all the consequent and detrimental effects on our minds. Instead, I want to share one family’s creative push back against the accepted norms.
A year ago I helped put on a seminar for parents about reading. We shared about its critical importance to feeding imagination and also about the dangers of electronics addiction to our children. About a week later, one Mom came to us and shared that she and her husband had been so alarmed, they had made a radical change in the amount of time their children were permitted to use electronic devices, down to two-and-a-half hours. “A week?” my fellow presenter asked, “No, per day,” was the response. It is no wonder reading is falling by the wayside.
When children can have instant gratification with very little effort – perhaps moving a finger on a screen – and finish a game in five minutes, why would they want to spend 30 minutes laboriously decoding words, let alone following a plot, keeping track of characters, or creating pictures for themselves in their own mind’s eye? This is precisely why reading with your children is crucial.
Still another mother and father went home from that seminar and came up with a creative idea. Rather than simply resolving to read as a family every evening, they drew up a schedule of reading similar to the TV guide, a sort of reading menu. Each night of the week featured a different book and is only read on that night. They purposefully varied the genres of literature. For example, Monday might be fantasy night and the current book The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper; Tuesday is biography night, perhaps something like Amos Fortune Free Man by Elizabeth Yates; Wednesday is mystery night with the Happy Hollister series; Thursday is poetry and picture books; Friday is high adventure with N.D. Wilson’s Ashtown Burials series. If they go out on Tuesday night, or are too busy on Friday night, they miss reading that particular book that week, just as we used to do before the days of recording devices for later viewing. Just think of the possibilities for building anticipation and developing that craving for “the next chapter,” we so long for our children to acquire.
Not only is this a clever way to read several books at once, to provide for family nights of togetherness and a superior form of entertainment to television, but it is a way of nourishing the habits of wide reading and reading slowly. The options for this innovative family reading program are endless, not just in the variety of books read, but in how the time is used. It is possible, if you have an hour, to read a fiction story for one-half hour, and a missionary biography for the second half-hour. Various members of the family can take turns reading, or certain books on given nights can be read by different family members. Spreading the reading from week to week builds curiosity and secures attention through expectant anticipation. The variety of selections ensures that something will please every kind of personality in your home. Even better, some children who are finicky, may just discover some new people and places they would otherwise not have become acquainted with, and the choices are not those of the network, but appropriate and personal to your own family. Instead of everyone being entertained individually, the experience is shared.
Think of all the books you’ve been meaning to read and haven’t gotten around to yet. Pull them out. Assign them a night and, rather than lounging with the remote or keeping the kids quiet with their little hand-held toys, relax and read. There’s more than a program at stake, there is your child’s boundless delight to be awakened and memories to be made. Instead of hearing them endlessly quote jingles and mindless video scripts, you might hear them rattling off beautiful literary phrases, discussing together how next week’s installment will unfold, or best of all, find them scribbling down their own unique stories because stories beget stories and family leisure time spent absorbed in books will fill their minds and hearts with a fertile supply of them.