Why Your Child Says They Say They Hate Reading, and How Discussion Can Help
Image description: a black and white photo of a teenage girl, looking askance. Credit: Jonathan Cosens Photography on Unsplash
My teen likes books once he gets started. It’s just hard to GET him started…
How do you deal with slow parts in books? All books have them. But my 12-year-old immediately gives up on a book when she hits a slow spot.
As a reading tutor and creative writing teacher, I work with kids from diverse ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds. But the complaint most of them voice — confidentially — is the same. Kids are overloaded by authoritative words.
My students say they are pummeled with communication in only one direction. Before they even get to the seemingly simple, private act of sitting down with a good book, they have to listen to their teachers instruct them; their parents, mentor them; and their activity instructors, tutors, and older siblings tell them what to do and how to be. On top of that, there are devices. Never before in history have kids had such variety of people claiming to know things— peers as well as adults — pouring out of their tablets, Apple Watches, and Google Mini Homes.
To use an analogy from Soviet literature, the old stomping grounds of my days as a Russian professor, in Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, the radio constantly broadcasts directions on how to live. As you can imagine, the result is despair. The protagonist occasionally looks up from his work and shouts: “Stop that noise! Let me respond to it!”
Against this rather dystopian feeling, a well-intentioned “Honey, why don’t you read a book?” is perceived yet another command to receive, rather than imagine — and obey, rather than participate. As for hitting a slow spot? Well… they were only listening, after all. The investment of self is just not up to snuff.
Kids want to be fuller participants. To engage in dialogue with the author. To imitate. To praise. To argue. To complain.
They can; they should.
In the blog posts that follow, I will show how a partnership between an adult and a child can foster a reading practice that is rich, exciting, and — dare I say — healing.
A Temporary Handicap
In How to Love a Child, the Polish writer and educator Janusz Korczak writes about a child as a whole human being — only “temporarily inexperienced.” I like that. I’m motivated by my students’ intelligences, and in our sessions I ask kids questions about questions I actually want to know answers to.
The kids often surprise me with the complexity and nuance of their minds. “Dorothy [of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] has a destiny,” I once asked L., then seven years old. “Do you think you have a destiny too?”
L. paused, then offered: “I believe I have destiny, just not fate. I think destiny is what we are told we have in the beginning. But fate — fate is what it turns out we had all along.”
I do partner up with a student in a more structured and consistent way than our crazy times might allow a parent. And, to help them process things a bit more deeply, over time, we first explore these questions in homework-based writing activities and then our discussions. But the central idea of real conversations with Korczak’s “temporarily inexperienced” young folks can be replicated in parenting.
5 Tips for a Better Reading Partnership:
1. Let curiosity guide your conversations
My dad, a writer and insatiable reader, always made me feel he cared not only about the books — but also, more importantly, about knowing who I was over the years. He provided lots of different books for me to read and had lots of conversations on diverse topics. Our ongoing conversation was structure against which I could flutter and stretch, like a bird learning to fly. And, later, I was more likely to visit the nest, knowing there were people there who cared about my journey. Our conversations were the best gift he could give me.
Given that shiny patina of “great literature,” one is sometimes tempted to let a given book’s prestige shape the discussions, asking questions about things that we already know we admire. However: watch out for our beautifully genuine young readers! They will tell you it’s boring, annoying, unrelated to their experiences, or (my personal LEAST favorite — say, with a James Baldwin short story that depicts racism…) “UNFAIR.”
What helps me through such sticky spots is a sense of surrender. It does not help us see the book as an abstraction — something to check off the reading list. Instead, we can imagine the book as a a mystery. To use a term devised by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, it becomes as we explore it. It becomes our own version of that book — theirs and our own. So we let it.
And we let them become, our readers, when we stay open to a book unlocking something unexpected in them. What’s been an exciting discovery for me is that our book conversations are ongoing inquiry, given that my little partner in conversation is a wholly new person every… five minutes, is it?
2. Simplify the terms of the discussion — not the questions
In your discussions, you might pose the questions about books that invite all kinds of reactions, from love to criticism — even to disappointment. The trick here is not to go for the obvious and agreeable, but to have questions that encourage a range of viewpoints.
Your perspective may be wildly different than your child’s. That’s fine. The goal here is not consensus. Showing your child that you are fine with a range of responses that differ wildly from yours is one way to let them know they are safe and appreciated.
Here is a sampling of questions that work for nearly any book in any genre:
What is one image that sticks out for you, that you think you might remember? Who might be your favorite character? Who is the most annoying one? Would you make different choices than the character in question? What is one delicious word from this book that you can almost taste in your mouth? What does it remind you of? What do you disagree with in this book?
As you can see, the questions themselves are not framed in any kind of literary theory. They are open invitations — and only that.
3. Strive for minimalism
Since teaching academia, where we tackled novels and explored many different aspects of the scenes, I’ve shifted to methods such as focusing on one word at a time. This kind of minimalism really allows a child to shine — and allows the grownup to slow down and — you know — not stress out as much.
What does it mean that the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel is, in fact, little? Is he little? From K., my wonderful twelve-year-old student, I’ve learned that the Little Prince is not at all a kid with his flower. He is a parent figure, and an emotionally intelligent one, who can see through the flower’s pretense. On the other hand, he is a kind of adopted child to the pilot who is stuck in the desert with this strange child.
It all depends on the context, doesn’t it? — who is little and who is not…
4. Make the journey about the two of you
I’ll admit it: I am a high achiever, born and bred of high achievers. As a result, I’m often tempted to nag my nine-year-old about reading because certain books appear to be milestones — things to be scaled, conquered, attained.
Naturally, Nathan does not crave lounging in bed with another book as another mountain to conquer. Instead, I try to aim for conversations about books that foster his curiosity about my reading experiences, when I was a kid. It gives him a meaningful context.
You might remember the books that got you through middle school, those that shaped you in high school. If you have time to reread some of those books, it can be an eye-opening experience for you as well as of your child.
The discussion can be a bonding experience, made meaningful by present-day interaction as well as talking about your history of reading. It’s family history. And it moves towards mutual growth, where you also consider your prior perspectives, the factors that shaped you over time, your life.
If you have a bit more time, each of you can pick out a notebook to keep a short diary in your respective notebooks as you read during the week, and compare notes on weekends. Both of you could doodle and reimagine whatever you like in the book you are reading. Then, after both of you finish the book, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, while sipping your respective hot beverages, you both ask each other questions and write down the answers.
Maintaining your conversation with your child can cultivate a Zen space around reading that differs from the rest of the habits ingrained in us — and our kids — in this culture. In a world where every stick has turned into a thing with a speaker with an opinion, one may resist the book’s invitation to be taken into its narrative. But there is a reward: knowing that there is companionship at the end. It gives us permission to dream away, wandering around a great book.
5. Model active listening
This is easier said than done. Prepare for things to be a bit harder than with your adult partners in conversation. You might need to listen patiently as your less experienced partner in conversation needs extra time to find the right words. I sometimes find myself wanting to help by inserting just the right words; most of the time my words are, in fact, wrong.
Conversely, ask your child to listen. In a good old playground tradition, in our sessions the student has the right to speak before me, but I do get my turn. In this way, we practice mutual respect.
Not only does this promote good communication habits, but turn taking leads to a kind of depth that we all crave to have in meaningful interactions — as kids and adults.
So many implications for that reading motivated by love and mutual respect. And so many books to try… What do YOU do that promotes reading? Let me know in the comments below!
I love working with kids in this way, and would love to help more people; you can reach me on this section of my website to get in touch.