Q&A Patrons ask; librarians answer. Killjoys: Judgment, Shame, & Frustration (Reluctant Readers, part 3)

Q&A: As Children's Librarians, it's our job to answer questions from children, parents, caregivers, and teachers. Part three responds to a question about kids reading trashy junk & endless series.

Q: I'm ready for him to move on! My son has been reading Garfield books forever! (or Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, Rainbow Magic, Geronimo Stilton, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or endless hours of comics.) Isn't it time for him to read harder books? Old illustration of baby getting thrown out with bathwater

A: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. While those books may seem as worthless as old bathwater; repetitive, stale, and stagnant to you, in fact re-reading or reading formulaic writing builds fluency and increases comprehension – but the baby in this metaphor is your son's fledging motivation. In your efforts to dump those stale books, make sure you're not dumping something much more valuable and significant: his sense of autonomy, confidence, and inspiration. 

How can all those positive feelings come from reading formulaic writing? Well, let me ask you: Was your son eager to get another book in the series? Did he focus on it to the exclusion of other activities? Was he so enthralled by it, he recounted the whole story to you? Did he beam at you with the next volume in his hand? Well – You can't separate his enthusiasm, focus, and spontaneous memorization from the qualities of the particular books he chooses. However, you seem to have an avid reader on your hands, so your work here may be done! He is building neural pathways that connect the activity of reading with feelings of joy. Brain research confirms that Aristotle was right when he wrote “We are what we repeatedly do.” Adult avid readers confirm that they built their own habit of reading with practically any content – pulp fiction, comics, magazines, or whatever else might have motivated them when they were young. (See this study for the science behind building positive habits.)

So, do not get all boy reading mangacontrol-freakish at this point. How you handle your frustration with his reading choices matters. Don't battle over this. If his reading choice seems too easy, too obnoxious, poorly written, or a challenge to your values, try to not judge. If you object to the content, discuss it with your child and add your own perspective and understanding. In fact, this is an excellent way to make sure he knows your values!

It won't hurt to promote the reading choices you prefer – the books you consider more quality literature, the challenging ones, the ones you learned so much from when you were his age. However, my observation and experience is that your influence is strongest when it is respectful and without shame. Shame kills motivation.

Okay, so what do I do? When you visit the library together, let him pick out anything he wants. Accept it. You can also pick out what you want him to read. You can share book trailers to turn him on to literature outside his comfort zone. (Here are some kid recommended ones, some from Washington, DC, some chosen by OPL librarians, and some from the recent 90-second Newbery film festival.)

 boy reading to his mom at bedtime

You can also wave your arms around and tell him why your favorite book is truly fantastic! That's wonderful and funny. But you must respect his process. Don't push too much.

Your child’s feelings of confidence and autonomy are more important than your pride in his accomplishments. Be patient, and you are likely to get both. Do not let your judgment (or society’s) squash his enthusiasm and kill his reading habit before he gets to what you think is the good stuff.

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