Is it possible to instill a love of reading in a child who hates to read? Or is it, as Cletus from “The Simpsons” might say, “an exercise in futility”?
I’ve been struggling with this question regarding my youngest son, Henry (now 12), who will be going into 7th grade in the fall. I love to read-always have. My husband is a reader. Our older two sons, Jonah (17) and Aaron (16) have always loved reading, and in fact Aaron devours books greedily and at an astonishing pace.
So what to do about Henry: somehow try to change his viewpoint about the joy (or to his mind, the misery) of reading, or simply accept that not everyone in the world is a reader? And I fear I’m taking this too personally- that my perspective may not be exactly objective or, well, healthy. Books and reading are central to my life- just as they are peripheral at best to Henry’s.
It has not always been thus for Henry. When he was younger, surrounded by books and readers, it was a regular part of his life. I took seriously the advice from parenting experts that reading aloud to your children was critical if you wanted to raise kids who loved to read- and would be a central component in their learning to write. If you were submerged in good writing, the logic went, you’d naturally absorb its structure, rhythms, and extensive vocabulary; and that when the time came, good writing would flow naturally and easily.
From the time Henry was about 3 to 7, he shared a bedroom with his two older brothers (weirdly enough, the three of them freely chose this configuration). So in addition to my reading picture books and chapter books aloud specifically to Henry, he would listen when I read books at night to his older brothers. In this way, he became hooked at a very early age on the “Harry Potter” series.
In first grade, Henry was the first picked up by the school bus in the morning, and the last dropped off in the afternoon. In other words, he spent a lot of time on that bus every day- and he spent it reading Harry Potter books.
It goes without saying that J.K. Rowling’s franchise kept rolling along in the first decade of this millennium- and the books got longer each time. In third grade, Henry and a few of his friends were reading whichever Harry Potter book had come out at the time; they frequently compared notes as to who was further along, who had finished chapter 10 first, etc.
Henry’s teacher decided the boys were becoming too competitive, and- without discussing it with the parents ahead of time- told the boys they had to stop reading it and pick a different book. No, this teacher was not some religious freak opposed to the Satanic wizardry of Hogwarts- she just didn’t like the overt competition, and put a stop to it in the most insensitive and blockheaded way possible.
Since that time, reading has never been the same for Henry- it’s almost like some light was extinguished. And it kills me. To be fair, it’s possible that Henry’s previous love affair with reading would have ended soon anyway, as his passion for sports began to blossom and he wanted to spend more and more time outside. But I’m certain that teacher’s actions didn’t help.
In fourth, fifth and sixth grades, Henry’s homework always included reading for 20 to 30 minutes a night and then some exercise tied to his book- a “reading journal,” a blog post, etc. He and I had repeated confrontations over these years where I would push him to read, he’d say, “I hate reading!” to which I’d desperately respond– the dagger twisting in my heart- “No, you don’t.” No, you can’t, I’d be thinking.
This summer, I’ve practically had to bribe Henry to pick up a book at all. (OK, technically, I did bribe him.) Some part of me still believes that as long as Henry keeps at least one little toe in the world of reading, someday it might stick. Someday, he’ll discover the enjoyment of entering worlds and lives that are not one’s own. Of vicariously having experiences and relationships one would never otherwise have. Of peering into characters and families, glimpsing other people’s inner feelings and tendencies and reactions. Of escaping to a fictional place and spending some time there.
These are the things I love about reading. It breaks my heart that Henry is not similarly touched and inspired by books. But though I’m not ready to give up entirely, I must admit: Henry is turning out to be an amazing young person; he is sweet, sensitive, perceptive, creative, funny and extremely smart. And he is becoming who he is in spite of (because of?) the fact that he’s not a reader.
Maybe I need to acknowledge that books don’t make a difference for everyone, that shunning books doesn’t wreck you for life. It’s a tough lesson for me, but Henry is proof that loving the written word isn’t a prerequisite to being a beautiful human being.