Under typical circumstances, the close of the school year is welcomed by cheers from students and teachers alike as they sprint into the sweaty summer days. This year, the Covid-19 pandemic ripped children out of what was ‘normal,’ and left parents and teachers scrambling to fit the final weeks of school into the confinements of a computer screen.

The usual end-of-year parties and events have been cancelled, and this year has ended with a slow fizzle, and a sigh of relief. With the days gaining a little more breathing room, and a semblance of familiarity settling in with the easy summer days. Perhaps alongside our goal of general survival, we can use this extra margin to be intentional in encouraging our kids to read.

I think parents are pretty much sold on the importance of reading. We understand it is vital to our children’s cognitive development and language skills. Holding the baby on our lap, pointing at the cow, and asking them what sound a cow makes is “Parenting 101.” But how do we help them leave our lap and begin to enjoy reading as a solitary exercise?

Summer can actually be a great time to encourage your kids to step into the wonderful world of reading purely for their own enjoyment. While every child is wired differently, here are five things that I have found helpful as I seek to encourage my own children to develop a love for books.

1. Have Books Available

In order for a child to learn to love reading, they must have access to books! The public library can be an excellent resource. Not only are they a sea of literary adventures you can check out for free, but many have special events and reading programs during the summer months. Our public library allows children to earn prizes based on the number of books they read throughout the summer.

I, myself, was a library child. My mother took me, along with my three siblings, to the library weekly. This went on for years. Even when we were teenagers and going four different directions, she hauled a large cardboard box, heavy with books, to and from the library by herself. 

That box would sit in our living room available for us to peruse at our leisure. There always seemed to be something new to read at hand. I credit the plethora of random facts bouncing around in my brain—tidbits on topics ranging from outer space to WW2—to my mom’s determination to keep us reading.

I’ve tried to follow her example with my own kids. Next to my kitchen, I have set up a reading area for them—it’s just a basket full of books and a beanbag chair, but I find my kids want to be near me. They tend to gravitate toward that spot where the books are simply waiting to be picked up.

Build up your kids’ home library in any way you can. If libraries aren’t your thing, perhaps arrange for a book swap between your kids and some of their friends. Let them trade books! Sometimes an endorsement from a friend is all it takes for your child to become engrossed in a book.

2. Never Use Reading As a Punishment

It might be tempting to yell at your kid to go to their room and read a book. Especially in the summer when you’re spending a lot of extra time together and patience has worn thin. However, try to remember that books are a privilege and should not be used as a punishment.

It’s okay for kids to be bored! When I stop seeing it as my sole responsibility to ensure my kids are properly entertained and happy at all times, I begin to see progress toward healthy independence. I love catching my kids reading on their own initiative. In fact, for a little while last summer, I kept a stash of quarters so I could stealthily hand one to my child if I ‘caught’ them reading. Sometimes if they are wandering aimlessly, I’ll tell them to go and straighten their books on their bookshelf. Next thing I know, guess what they’re doing?

Carry a book for your child in your purse. If you are in a situation where your child needs to wait—a doctor’s office for example—hand them the book. Don’t be too quick to hand over a screen. Wait for your child to get especially wiggly, then hand them the book. It’s wonderful when they get a little older and you graduate from hauling a heavy board book around to a small chapter book.

3. The Bedtime Trick

My son has always been a strong reader, but I can’t say he has always loved books. For a long time, it was a battle to get him to read for any length of time. The required nightly reading he had to do for school was frustrating for both of us. Last summer we tried a new method, and finally something clicked.

Normally I am a stickler about bedtime, but I’m learning to have a little leniency in the summer, especially when it encourages reading. So, last summer, I made a deal with my son. His bedtime was normally 8:00. But, if I found him engrossed in reading a chapter book when I came to tuck him in at 8:00, he could stay up reading until 8:30. This worked! Suddenly, my son was experiencing the joy of losing himself in a good book.

The incentive to stay up later was enough to motivate him to read, and the book did the rest of the work by sucking him in and capturing his attention.

I fully plan on making the same deal with my 7-year-old daughter this summer in the hopes it will click for her as well.

4. Pick a Better Book

When my kids are struggling to stay focused on reading, I encourage them to pick a book that’s a better fit for them. Not all books are created equal, and books are as varied as the children who read them. It took some trial and error to discover which books would hold my son’s attention. To be perfectly honest, I am still on the hunt for the right book to draw in my daughter.

Not only do kids want to read about topics they are interested in, but they want to feel successful and read the words with confidence. I can still remember the title of the first book I read cover to cover all by myself: “Sam the Garbage Man.” The triumph I felt over being able to read independently is something I still carry with me. Know your child’s reading level, and give them books within it. Be wise about when to challenge them. Reading is not easy for some children, and they can feel defeated easily.

Graphic novels, or books that are more in comic format can be excellent. There’s something about having lots of pictures and dialogue that keeps the child engaged and reading on to the next frame. My son and daughter seem to really enjoy the silliness of the “Dog Man” series. I also purchased several copies of my own personal favorite comic: “Calvin and Hobbes.” Although I don’t necessarily want my children behaving like Calvin, I find his vocabulary and imagination to be impressive.

5. Set An Example

Read in front of your children! I have to be intentional about picking up a book and turning real pages in front of my kids. I love a good audiobook, and I have a Kindle, but I’m a big fan of old school paper versions too. There are a number of reading apps for kids out there. These can be really helpful for some families as a way of expanding your library in the palm of your hand, but since I don’t need screens to be any more prevalent for my kids than they already are, it’s paper copies for us.

Something wonderful happens when you’re sitting outside on those deliciously sunny summer days—you can’t see your screen! So stop straining your eyes at your screen by the pool and grab a book with a spine and pages. Not only is it better for your eyes and your kids, you won’t have to put it in rice if it gets wet.

One of my favorite memories as a child is sitting together as a family listening to my Mom or Dad read aloud from a chapter book. A chapter a day. All together. Quietly listening in languid stillness. Together we visited Narnia and traveled west in a covered wagon in “Little House On the Prairie.” The communal bond of anticipating the next chapter is something I look back on with a cherished fondness. I’ve done some of this—we’re slowly working our way through “A Wrinkle In Time”—but I hope to be more consistent.

In a rapidly changing world, the dominion of screens is ever growing. It is essential we not only look at our own relationship with reading and books, but think about what we can do to help our children’s reading experience be positive.

Many of us have been thrust into an open-ended season of being home. An early summer began rather abruptly due to a worldwide pandemic. Perhaps, in the midst of the uncertainty and isolation, we can use this unexpected margin to nudge our children into a love of books.

As Ann Lamott says of books in “Bird by Bird”: “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.”

I don’t know about you, but I know my children and I could certainly use a little of that right about now.

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