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Want Your Children to Love Books? Read On

August 21, 2004|Jennifer Horsman-Flowers | Jennifer Horsman-Flowers is a novelist and lives in Laguna Beach.

We all want our kids to be readers, but many of us parents are failing at it. A study released in July by the National Endowment for the Arts found that less than half of all Americans read novels, and only 57% read any book last year. No doubt with the advent of the Internet, video games and 500 TV channels, books have more competition these days. Still, all it takes to make a reader is a bit of determination.

It is even possible to turn computer-game-playing teenage boys into book lovers. My 15-year-old son, Jonpaul, falls into a normal range for just about everything. He likes school, friends and computer games. He plays water polo, studies karate and thinks about girls "most of the time." The only unusual thing about him is that he is a voracious reader. In the last few years he has graduated from reading mostly science fiction to reading the good stuff: all of Steinbeck, most of Hemingway, Poe, Kipling and Twain. He reads the newspaper's opinion pieces; he loves the comics. Reading was the gift I wanted to give him; nothing seemed more important.

The recipe for making a reader is simple, but the main ingredient is time. First, parents must read out loud in the early years. I think a mistake many parents make is imagining that a simple bedtime story is enough to foster good reading skills, let alone a love of books. Parents need to follow their kid's expanding attention span -- the older the child, the longer the story. A good rule of thumb is to work up to an hour and a half a night.

There are countless benefits to reading out loud with your children. The bottom line: They will do better in school. Their attention span lengthens along with their ability to focus. Reading dramatically sharpens thinking skills. Reading out loud also generates intimacy between parent and child. Besides the verbal sharing and discussions, there is much to say about the physical intimacy of being cuddled up together, good book in hand. Additionally, it works like a tonic on tired or fussy kids.

Another common mistake parents make is to assume their student is reading enough in school. Most schools select three or four books for the school year and add three to a summer reading list. This is not nearly enough. A reading habit is a daily habit.

Also, watch out for the preteen and teen years, when many if not most kids drop the reading habit. Other things begin to replace reading time, mostly TV and computer games, especially for boys. Here's what you do to combat the pernicious addiction to computer games or TV: Explain how and why such an activity can be too much of a good thing. Share your fear, namely that the child will turn into an adult with no life beyond the computer games or the television set.

Have this heart-to-heart talk serve as the foundation of this plan: Start making kids pay for their computer or TV time. Bribery? You bet. Now, a lot of people object to bribing kids to read, but it works like a charm and is often the only thing that will work. So, get tough, be strict (but kind) and consistent. It's a simple trade -- they get computer or TV time for reading time. Some parents do an hour-for-hour trade, or one hour on the computer for every two hours of reading. Other parents settle for one book a week.

Reading is a habit, and it is often difficult in the beginning. Begin with 15 minutes, twice daily, and build up. The newspaper offers an excellent starting point for material. Consult teachers and librarians for appropriate reading-level books. Make a commitment. Getting more of our kids reading is the greatest gift we can give them.

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