Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship, and engaging in family reading time provides a perfect opportunity.
Reading is essential for your child’s/teen’s success in school, and reading also plays a critical role in your child’s/teen’s:
- social and emotional development,
- language development,
- executive functions like working memory and self-control,1
- connection to you,
- empathy and understanding of others,
- imagination (ability to “see” the story),2 and
- ability to choose healthy behaviors (preventing high risk behaviors and unhealthy choices).
Researchers have found that social, emotional, and cognitive development cannot be separated. In fact, they directly and indirectly impact one another.3 Children/Teens exercise their responsible decision-making skills and moral development as they reflect on their favorite characters’ choices and the outcomes that result.
Children/Teens ages 11-14 are in the process of learning how to read larger, more complicated texts and extracting meaning from them. Teens ages 13-14 are required in school to begin to think abstractly about their reading and to decipher metaphors, symbols, and cultural themes. All children/teens can establish critical learning habits through reading that will extend throughout their school years. Reading is best learned snuggled up next to parents, grandparents, and other loved ones. In fact, the single most important activity for building skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children.4
As children/teens get older and become more competent readers, parents tend to stop reading aloud. However, even high school students (and adults) benefit from collaborative reading or reading aloud. In reading together, you are deepening your caring connection (relationship skills). You and your child/teen gain insight into the characters’ inner lives – thoughts and feelings – in a way that no other source can allow you access (social awareness). And, with that exploration of others’ experiences, you learn more about who you are (self-awareness) and what you value (responsible decision making).
Yet, we all face challenges when it comes to establishing a daily reading routine with our children/teens. Families today are busier than ever with more demands on their time.
Our children/teens are highly entertained and stimulated by screens and the many worlds they can fly quickly in and out of through gaming, YouTube, and more. So, it may take a bit more encouragement than past generations to start reading. But, once you get into a routine and make it a joyful experience, it can enrich your family life and deepen your intimacy all the while you are promoting valuable skills for school and life success. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to support family reading in cooperative ways without a daily struggle.
Becoming intentional about a daily reading routine, looking for ways to incorporate reading into your family times spent together, and considering the quality of the experience of how you read together can all contribute to a child’s/teen’s development.
Today, in the short term, reading can create:
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we engage in reading;
- opportunity for dialogue and reflection; and
- a direct and simple way to influence your child’s/teen’s positive development.
Tomorrow, in the long term, reading helps your child/teen:
- build skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- build skills in hard work and persistence;
- develop empathy, creative thinking, and responsible decision-making skills; and
- create positive learning habits that contribute directly to school success.
This five-step process helps your family establish a routine for daily reading. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about establishing a routine for daily reading by asking open-ended questions. Seeking their input and offering authentic choices in designing a plan to establish a routine for daily family reading offers multiple benefits.
In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to think through their routine and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing the routine);
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about a critical aspect of their learning – reading.
- Get curious about the books your child/teen is reading at school. They may be reading books you remember. Engage them in a discussion about the books they are reading.
- Discuss with your child/teen the differences between reading a book and watching a movie. Talk about which option allows for more creativity and self-expression?
- Discuss how they make decisions about what to read. Ask: “How do you know a book will be interesting?” or “How do you know whether a book is appropriate for you?”
- Allowing your child/teen some choices in establishing a reading routine will add to their sense of control and motivation to read. Questions you could ask to better understand their preferences include:
- “How much reading homework do you usually get from school everyday?”
- “Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time to read?”
- Create a space that can consistently be used for reading time. Although reading can take place anytime and anywhere, having a designated place ensures there is a well-lit, quiet, and comfortable spot. The goal of your reading space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your child/teen to fully focus on a story. Setting up a reading nook can be highly motivating to a child/teen and may encourage more of their own time spent on reading.
- Create a family reading rule. Invite discussion at dinner on books that the family is reading. Engage in the topic equally, so your child/teen is not carrying the burden of the conversation.
Approach reading time as a treat not a chore. If you save reading for after things like doing homework or getting ready for bed, then reading can be viewed as a desirable time to be together.
Allow your child/teen to select their own books that look interesting and desirable. You can learn more about books to offer your child/teen on the online review tool from Common Sense Media (or download their app). It offers the developmental appropriateness of each book and a sneak preview along with central themes.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, learning about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working on can help you know which aspects might be more difficult for them when it comes to reading. Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds tend to enjoy challenging tasks but may not be organized about their academic work so they can use support with managing their time. They desire staying up late so parents can contribute to their learning by helping them stick to bedtime rules to get enough sleep. They may need quiet down time which is a perfect chance for reading if there are clear rules and limits on screen time. They can enjoy reading to younger children. They are interested in real world problems, so nonfiction or historical fiction may interest this age group.
- Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds are capable of empathy and seeing another’s perspective, so books with strong, interesting characters facing challenging dilemmas can be of interest. This age group is grappling with the risks of adulthood and trying to understand the roles of sex, alcohol, drugs, family problems, and violence. Books that provide wisdom and insight into social situations can interest twelve-year-olds and provoke their thinking and honing of their own sense of right and wrong.
- Fourteen-year-olds are undergoing rapid growth and require lots of sleep, food, and exercise, so make sure that your routines are consistent so that they can refuel when they need. Fourteen-year-olds are asserting their independence so they may think they are invincible and know everything. Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries to help them through this uncertain time in which they need to take risks. This is a particularly important age to allow plenty of choice in reading material. Fourteen-year-olds can “play out” their need for risk in high-stakes adventure books, thrillers, ghost stories, or nonfiction weird-but-true stories. Because of their increased interest in sexuality and attraction, they may also gravitate toward romances or love stories. This is a healthy outlet for their need for risk and also provides quiet down time in the midst of significant growth and development.
Follow your child’s/teen’s lead on books. Take a trip to the library, and see what they select. Give them the choice of which books to read.
Research shows that many boys tend to stop reading by their own choice for pleasure around nine or ten.5 Experts suspect this is because boys tend toward nonfiction topics like the natural world or how-to topics like how to build a treehouse. They might also gravitate toward graphic novels or comics. Experts suspect that parents can voice their disapproval of these reading choices and inadvertently discourage reading. Be sure you leave judgment of book choices behind and only encourage their reading. Nonfiction and graphic novels are excellent choices if they interest your young reader. As long as it’s safe content, offer your support and interest.
As a parent, it is easy to be confused about how best to support your child’s/teen’s reading. Here are some specific ways you can define your role while ensuring they have full ownership over their reading.
- When your child/teen invites you to learn more about what they are reading or asks a question, listen with interest. Try and relate any themes to their life. You can also ask questions such as:
- “What captures your interest when you start reading a book?”
- “Which character do you identify with the most?”
- “What are some themes in the book that are similar or different to how you are living?”
Share your curiosity and interest in the subject but do not provide an answer.
- Model reading. Remember, your child/teen is watching you and will notice if you do or do not read around your home. Allow your child/teen to pick a book for you or read a book they have read and bring it into your conversations.
- Research information together in books. Talk about the difference between online research and looking up something in a book. Although it’s tempting to do all of your research about a topic online, be sure to include books or articles in your research process. If your child/teen is doing a science project on geology, internet research can be helpful. But, be sure and also seek out books that can provide helpful background information. This cultivates a habit for seeking out the information they require through books.
- Encourage your child/teen to take “brain breaks” while they are reading to allow themselves to process what they have read. They can take a break to walk around, play with the dog, or do a chore. You could also share how you take brain breaks at work and strategies that have worked for you.
Parents do not need to be subject matter experts EVER! Indeed, your child/teen may be reading about topics that you may not know anything about. That is exciting! Encourage them to share this knowledge with you. Appear interested and engaged. Model active learning. If they need information, be a research assistant and provide the support they need to find the right information.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Reading practice can take the form of reading together, reading individually, or talking about what each person in the family is reading. When children/teens talk about what they are reading, you are growing vital new brain connections around presentation, summarizing, and synthesizing.
- Use “I’d love to hear…” as a way to get your child/teen talking about what they are reading. This might sound like, “I remember reading this book. I’d love to hear what it’s about?”
- Recognize any effort your child/teen makes either reading or sharing with you what they are reading. Say, “I so appreciate hearing about the book through your lens. Because you have such an interesting way of looking at things.”
- Proactively remind your child/teen to help them be successful. This might sound like, “I am looking forward to hearing about the latest in the book that you are reading.”
Resist the temptation to nag. Children/Teens often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if we believe they are simple and don’t require much time. If you nag them about reading, they will resist. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen several new positive learning habits so that they understand how to perform them. You’ve practiced together, and now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Model and promote a learning attitude. Be curious about your child/teen and what they are learning. The more you model curiosity, the more they will engage in books as well as the world around them.
- Talk positively about reading and share your interest in reading. Talk with your child/teen about your favorite books and what made you feel connected with the characters.
- Coach your child/teen to get more support if needed. Encourage them to talk with their teachers to get book recommendations or alternatives. Hold firm to the belief that if your child/teen doesn’t like reading, it is because they haven’t found the genre that captivates them.
- Stay engaged. Read with your child/teen, discuss books regularly, make a plan to read a particular book that also has a movie, watch the movie after reading the book, and compare the stories.
Become aware of your own reactions to reading. Be sure that the tone and attitude you bring is one of enjoyment, curiosity, and learning.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is your child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting homework completed and checking it off the list, for example. But if your child/teen is working hard on reading, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children/teens are choosing to read, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you’re almost at the end of your book. You must be enjoying it! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Appreciate your child/teen when they share about a book that they are reading. You can say, “I really enjoy hearing about what you are reading. It’s like I am reading it through an entirely different lens.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You ended your video game when the timer went off and got out your reading for school – love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You got your reading done” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You stayed focused, managed your frustration, and worked through that challenging section.”
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.