During the debate over Michigan’s third-grade reading law, I read this article that contained this quote from a mom: “My son doesn’t like to read. It’s hard to force him, but he does well in every other subject, so they should not be forced to stay back.”
And I agree that he should not be held back.
But how in the world have we gotten to the place where a mom can admit to a reporter, on the record, that her kid isn’t a very good reader because he doesn’t like it and it’s hard to make him?
I mean, I get it. I don’t like forcing my daughter to do things she doesn’t like, either. And sometimes, I don’t because some of the things I think are important aren’t actually that important. They’re just a reflection of my values.
But there are some things that are non-negotiable because they’re just too important.
She has to go to bed at a certain time because sleep is inarguably, scientifically-proven to be extremely important. And even if science didn’t have anything to say on the matter, my own observations of my sleep-deprived child would quickly convince me of its necessity.
She has to take showers and brush her teeth because personal hygiene is both important for one’s health and because being in middle school is hard enough without going through it as the smelly kid.
She has to go to school if she’s not sick because it’s the law.
She doesn’t get to say no to these things. And if she does, I make her do them anyway, damn the resistance no matter its form.
Reading is one of these things.
Parents, pardon my bluntness, but society doesn’t expect a whole lot from you. We don’t really care if your kid goes to college; plenty of other kids will. We’d like it if your child grew up and found gainful employment because if he doesn’t some of our tax money will be spent on him instead of things we’d maybe rather have it spent on, but we also know that your unemployed son will likely be a greater hardship for you than for us, so even here, we’re fairly indifferent. We really don’t even care if you follow through on the personal hygiene stuff. Yes, it offends our sensibilities to stand next to your smelly offspring on the subway and we may cringe a bit at his toothless smile, but these are temporary inconveniences and, for the most part, we can avoid them.
Here is what we do want: We don’t want your kid to be a blithering idiot. Idiots are problematic. They generally suck at their jobs, which, if I’m a customer, is going to make my day worse. They do stupid things that impact other people, like take out zero-interest loans on homes they can’t afford which contribute to mass foreclosers and a total meltdown of the housing market. They commit crimes. They share fake news on Facebook. They vote for buffoons.
Idiocy affects everyone.
We want your child to grow up with some basic intelligence and knowledge of the world, and one of the easiest ways to gain these things is by reading.
Here is how important it is that your child read (source):
- Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education and is a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background.
- 16-year-olds who choose to read books for pleasure outside of school are more likely to secure managerial or professional jobs in later life.
- Regular readers for pleasure reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television or engaging with technology-intensive activities.
- Those who read for pleasure have higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Reading for pleasure was also associated with better sleeping patterns.
- Adults who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction.
- Studies have found that reading for pleasure enhances empathy, understanding of the self, and the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities.
Also, to the mom quoted at the beginning of this article, your son is not going to continue to do well in every other subject if he struggles to read. Here’s an example of a math question from the program I use with my third graders:
I know of very few children who love bathing. And yet no parent would simply accept that their kid will be forever filthy. Parents would never admit in an interview, “Well, my son doesn’t like to take baths, so we don’t make him do it.” They don’t excuse their child’s disgusting state by saying, “Yeah, he doesn’t like showers but you should see him build Lego sets.”
Reading is as important to your child’s brain as hygiene is to your child’s health.
One of the rationalizations parents of reluctant readers make is that if they force their child to read then they’ll destroy any chance that the kid will like reading in the future. They believe that by compelling reading, they’ll make it less likely that their child will fall in love with books. They take a hands-off approach in the hopes that their child will discover a love of reading on their own at some future date.
But we don’t do this with other important skills. We don’t believe that making children brush their teeth will result in so much hatred for the act that they will refuse to brush as adults.
I don’t buy the argument that forcing someone do to something means they will never learn to love that thing. One reason kids don’t like reading is that they aren’t good at it. It’s the same reason I don’t like doing burpees, performing car maintenance, or quilting.
But if you forced me to quilt for an hour every day, day after day, guess what will happen? I will get incrementally better at quilting to the point that someday, I won’t suck as much. I might, as I improve, realize that I no longer hate quilting. I might even choose to do it on my own.
This is literally the process of learning any new skill. First, you stink. Then, with some instruction, positive feedback, helpful criticism, and lots more practice, you get incrementally better. Then, with more of those things, you get better still. Eventually, you get pretty decent and maybe even good. Somewhere along the way, you learn to enjoy this thing. If you do, you choose to do it more on your own time and you get even better.
When I was a kid I hated going to bed. Then, when I got to my teenage years, it was pretty much my favorite thing to do. Still is.
When I was a kid I hated taking baths. Now? I choose to take a shower every day. Sometimes, I take two! Sometimes in the winter, I’ll take a shower just to warm up. I also like hot tubs.
When I was a kid, I hated cleaning my room. Today? Okay, I still hate cleaning my room. No rule is without exception and there’s no guarantee that your kid will ever love to read. But at least they will know how!
I look forward to the day when parents will be as ashamed to utter the words, “My son doesn’t like to read” as they would be to say, “My son doesn’t like to use the toilet.”
Some things are unacceptable. Not making your kid read outside of school is one of them.
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