Selfishness Pays (Off)

August 13, 2009 | 36 comments
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So, what with Utah’s poor Iowa Test scores, I’ve had a few people asking me how I turned all my children into such voracious little readers. “Did you read to them every day when they were little?” friends query.

“Why, no. Of course not,” I respond. “I’m much too selfish for that.”

Which is sort of the truth. On one hand, they did and do get read to almost every day—because scriptures count as reading, my friends. And, stellar saints that we are, we read as a family most every day. And, yes, I counted the “comics” picture scriptures as “scripture reading” when they were little.

On the other hand, I am not and have not ever been a consistent storybook reader. I have hoards of cute books, and we did read them occasionally. But I simply did not follow all that good advice about reading stories every single day. I am much too selfish for that. Bedtime came for the little people, and I was anxious to put them there—so I could go read my own books.

That is the whole truth: I don’t read to my kids. I read in front of my kids.

I read obsessively, compulsively. I probably have a disorder. I’m the lady you see reading at the red stoplight. (I have my kids trained to tell me when the light turns green because I just have to know what happens next. Even when parked at an intersection.) I have piles of books by my bed, by my computer desk, on the side tables, and on the end tables, and every bookshelf in the house is double- or triple-stacked. I laugh at the silly Home Show bookshelves that are inevitably filled with more decorations than books or with obviously unread leather bound classics. But I am jealous of how cute they look, so sometimes I try to put decorations on my bookshelves and arrange them nicely. But it only lasts a week or a month before new books squish or smash the cluttery pretty things. I love books, and I love reading—love them so much that I feel rather nasty and off-ish if I don’t spend at least a half-hour per day (and usually much, much more) in some fantasy land living a crazy life through someone else’s eyes.

I suppose my kids have learned from my example because I wouldn’t have judged a few of them as native, instinctive readers. But it has worked out beautifully. I’ve read what I wanted, and they’ve learned to love reading. I see this as one example of when selfishness pays off. I sure wish there were more.

36 Responses to Selfishness Pays (Off)

  1. Kim Siever on August 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I can read only short stories to my children. If I read stories that are too long, I fall asleep.

  2. Oliver D on August 13, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Sounds like A Thomas Jefferson Education! After all, when it comes to your kids’ education, it’s all about “You, Not Them.” You can never force your kids to learn, you have to “Inspire, Not Require.”

    Just kidding, I think TJED is a joke. In all seriousness, though, your post gives me hope that despite giving my kids the 10-second version of the 3 Little Pigs a few too many times and calling it good, at least my kids do consistently see me reading on my own.

    That said, I promise to read them a real story tonight!

  3. Frank McIntyre on August 13, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    In survey data, good child outcomes are apparently much more associated with the presence of books in the home than with the amount of time reported reading said books to the children.

  4. Andrew H. on August 13, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I believe there is a whole chapter about this in the book “Freakonomics”. The authors did a study (or reported on a study) on various reading programs for kids, where they were rewarded for reading books, and parents were encouraged to read to the children. If I remember correctly, none of these programs had much of an impact. Instead, the environment the kids grew up meant the most. Those who lived in a house with lots of books, and saw their parents reading, tended to become readers themselves.

  5. Hunter on August 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Sigh. I read to my kids most every night (ages 9, 7 and 3). However, I’m away at the office during the day, and most of my own personal reading time comes after they are in bed. (Or when I’m locked in the bathroom – and well, out of sight.)

    So, if I read to my kids, but they don’t see me reading much myself…then what? Ugh. (Truth be told, they read on their own every day and are turning out to be pretty OK readers, so I’m not too full of angst over this.)

    Anyhow, thanks for this post. You have reason to be very proud that you have apparently been successful in conveying an important life skill to your kids.

  6. Benjamin Orchard on August 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Andrew H. (#4) has the right of it–it’s the amount of books and the environment.

    Which is why my 5 year old who is about to start Kindergarten can read just fine (1st grade level, easy), and his 3 y.o. brother is going to be reading WELL before Kindergarten as well.

    The 7 year old won’t STOP reading, which is fine, because I don’t either.

    Here’s what I see as the BEST way to teach a kid to read–inundate them with hundreds of books and let them find the kind of book they enjoy. Eventually they’ll find something that hold their interest. It might be graphic novels, it might be comics, it might be something you don’t enjoy, but they’ll find it. Then buy them anything that they enjoy that isn’t trash (e.g., vulgar), and eventually they’ll broaden their reading horizons on their own.

    Is it a good idea to read to them? Sure. But if they see Mom and/or Dad reading, they will read just as much. Access to books is REALLY REALLY important for kids.

  7. Kylie Turley on August 13, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Excellent, #4. I haven’t read Freakonomics, yet. I’ve heard it’s interesting, so I’ll add it to my list.

    If anyone is reading this & the comments, one more question: how often do you read your kids’ books so you know what they’ve been reading?

  8. Tatiana on August 13, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Reading was always the fun activity at our house, it was something you did when you should have been doing something more productive like chores or studying. Reading for fun was just part of our lives. We went to the library as a family every Sunday afternoon and checked out as many books as we wanted. Both my parents did read a lot, and all my siblings did too. If I would get bored with the stuff I was reading lately, I would pick up and read something of theirs. In this way I got exposed to a lot of ideas and a lot of genres that I wouldn’t have chosen on my own.

    I do think reading to kids is important, but almost every kid I know loves books on their own, before tv or cultural pressures push them out of reading. Just having a lot of good books in your house at appropriate levels seems to be the most important thing of all. All kids already like books to begin with. We only need to not discourage them from reading them.

    I learned far more from my reading than I ever did from school, as well. I think it’s the best way to become educated.

    Lastly, the idea that one ought to read for virtue’s sake is a killer, as well. I think it kills the enjoyment of reading if one is supposed to do it, or required to do it. I always read because it’s fun and interesting, not because it’s something one ought to do. There’s nothing like being forced to read something to kill one’s enjoyment of it.

  9. Bob on August 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    #6: I don’t wish to downplay what you and others are saying, but I don’t think a child can just pick up a book and begin to read it. He must have some teaching or training to get started. Just having the books in the room will not get the job done.

  10. Bob on August 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    #8: “I think it’s (reading) the best way to become educated”. It is not. You need A formal association of people with similar interests. You need to be taught by someone who knows.

  11. polly on August 13, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Well, I have to agree that with my kids it wasn’t being read to, it was having available books around. I, too, read constantly, obsessively and cannot resist a book. I have to agree that I too learned far more from books. I don’t think the only way to be taught is by someone who knows. You can read from someone who has written what they know. You can pick up an idea or a bit of history from a novel and research further as well. There are many, many ways of learning, my favorite happens to be by reading. I have always had a wide assortment for my kids, I hound thrift stores and yard sales and the library. As a result all 4 of my kids have volunteered year round at the library. My kids are well rounded, and know far more then the average kid does in large part due to reading. My oldest is in college to become an english teacher. My 16 yo daughter just updated her facebook to brag about her reading, she could name 84 off the top of her head. To me, setting the example of reading, has always made more of an impact than anything else.

  12. dangermom on August 13, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    I’m not the only one who reads at stoplights. Yay!

  13. Kylie on August 13, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Thank you, # 12. I feel much better now! I was afraid someone was going to pick that out and call the police.

  14. Angie on August 13, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Although I haven’t met you, Kylie, you and I are obviously kindred spirits!! Here are a few reading quirks I have (how about you?):

    my bookshelves are now double-stacked. I have two rows of books on each shelf.

    I taught myself to read while walking in elementary school so that I could keep reading when the bus dropped me off.

    If I don’t have a book to read, then I have a floating feeling of missing out on something very important all day long.

  15. Bob on August 13, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    #13: “…where the veteran dreams of the FIGHT…fast asleep at the traffic light…….” (Jackson Browne)

  16. James Olsen on August 13, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    I have to say one of the absolute delights of my life is reading to my kids. We usually read several hours per day. We’re often reading two or three books at a time together. I wonder if I’m not in my own way just as selfish as you–there’s very little I enjoy more than reading to them, and I usually pick the books. I wonder if one of the mistakes parents make is reading too many kids books to kids. Don’t get me wrong, my kids love kids books and we’ve got several bookshelves crammed with them, and we often read them, but most of the books we read are at least young adult. Heck, I’m reading 1776 to my six year old right now–convinced him that the “Illustrated Edition” is the kids version. He loves it, and so do I. I say selfishly read your kids the books you want to read but can’t justify the time to sit and read them yourself, or else are too far down on your priority list to ever get off the list, and savor one of the great delights of life!

  17. ZD Eve on August 14, 2009 at 12:11 am

    These descriptions of reading at stoplights are making me nervous.

    Audio books, anyone?

  18. polly on August 14, 2009 at 12:55 am

    I don’t understand why people think that audio books are a substitute for reading? They have their place, but for me they have nowhere near the same experience. Although possibly while driving they might be a better choice. Although I am definitely guilty of reading while stopped.

  19. Aaron on August 14, 2009 at 7:32 am

    B.H. Roberts taught himself to read and write using the Bible as his text/teacher/friend. Joseph Smith educated himself by reading the Bible, various other good books, newspapers and by asking lots and lots of questions. I’ve told my kids they can go to college and get straight A’s, but if they aren’t reading good books all their lives they will never be educated. BTW, some of us used to read on the ski lift!!!

  20. Bob on August 14, 2009 at 9:08 am

    I love reading, and most of my education is from reading. But again, no one learns to read on their own. You all are life-time readers, but if I gave you a book in Koren, you would not get very far.
    Also, they do use books/reading in schools. I know very few truely educated/skilled people who have not been also mentored through their lives.

  21. Peter LLC on August 14, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Although possibly while driving they might be a better choice.

    A master of understatement, I see.

  22. Tamary on August 14, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Whether you prefer to read aloud to kids or not, I think the most important thing is to create a home culture where books are clearly valued. When kids see you choosing to spend time reading, either to yourself or to them, they tend to get the idea that reading is something desirable. Other things that help are frequent library trips, giving books as gifts (our kids always get a book on birthdays and Christmas in addition to any other presents), and even writing stories for each other to read. One of the greatest pleasures in my life is when one of my children gets excited about a book and we have a good discussion about it.

    #7: As kids get older and read more, it becomes impossible to read everything they read. When mine were younger I tried to preview their books as much as I could. But I also worked on teaching them what to do when they come across something inappropriate in their reading – skip that part, or stop reading, or come and talk to Mom or Dad. And how to tell what’s inappropriate in the first place. I still read a lot of what they read, and I still try to preview for the younger ones, but my oldest (13) has developed a good moral reading sense for herself. I wish I had done as well at her age.

  23. VeritasLiberat on August 14, 2009 at 11:57 am

    “that despite giving my kids the 10-second version of the 3 Little Pigs a few too many times and calling it good…”

    You obviously need this book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Once-Upon-Time-Asleep-Seconds/dp/0689866194

    “Once Upon a Time, The End: Asleep in 60 Seconds”

  24. John Hamilton on August 14, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    #19 Reading on the ski lift??? Now that is beyond obsession–bordering on a disorder! Just kidding. I have electronic books on my Palm OS device and will read while waiting at check-out lanes at the store. I often take a book with me in the car even when I know it’s unlikely I’ll have the chance to read it–somewhat like a security blanket or something.

    As far a kids go, just having the books conveniently at had is more than half the battle. We have books on shelves surrounding the television set so that the kids are forced to look at them and be tempted, at least during the commercials.

    You’d be surprised what kids pick up on. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to my (at the time) 4 year old and she could follow the story line pretty well and asked questions.

  25. Kylie on August 14, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    #24–books as a security blanket. Exactly right.

    Angie (#14). I’m just guessing here, but do you have books tucked in sideways on top of your double stacked shelves? And I suppose all your bookshelves bow in the middle under the weight? Yeah, me, too. Have you read either of Mary Lawson’s books?

  26. Angie on August 14, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    No, I’ve never heard of Mary Lawson. I’m going to Amazon right now!

  27. Bob on August 14, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    #24: : ” I have my books and poetry to protect me…” ( Simon and Garfunkel).
    ( And my favorite: “We mark our books with bookmarkers, to show us what we’ve lost.”)

  28. JES on August 14, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    I don’t read at stoplights, but I do read while I’m clearing counters and wiping them off and doing the dishes.

  29. Ardis Parshall on August 14, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Some of my dearest memories, ones with the power still to choke me up, are of our family reading times. Even when we were in our early teens, believe it or not, my two brothers and I were willing to lounge around on the living room floor while Mom read aloud.

    Also, one of my earliest memories, perhaps the earliest, is of sitting snuggled next to my mother, my little brother on her other side, while she read to us, and I looked up to watch her eyes moving back and forth.

    How could I not be a reader? But unlike most, I am now willing to regularly cull my shelves to keep the books under control. The limited collection is constantly being refined so that only the best, or only what appeals to my changing needs or taste, is left. It’s about time to get rid of most of the Russian history — anybody in Salt Lake want to come by and pick them up?

  30. Tatiana on August 14, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    I tend to give away copies of my favorite books to anyone who is willing to read them, so my shelves become overloaded with stuff that’s my next-to-favorite. But I too have the problem of all my bookshelves overflowing two deep with more crammed sideways on top. I keep moving into bigger places all the time to accommodate them. One of these days there will be a Kindle or something like it that will replace them all. It will be nice to be able to make the font size bigger to ease my old-person eyes, too. Then I’ll get rid of them all and move into a tiny apartment.

  31. Kylie on August 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Yeah for the Provo Library Book Sale: 20 books for $9.25–good ones, too. We’re reading today!

  32. Alison Moore Smith on August 15, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    “Oliver D.” (#2), I was just about to smack you, until I got to the second paragraph. Whew, close one. But I’ll be checking out your blog, to be sure.

    Years ago we decided that we collect books–which basically means we can buy as many as we want without guilt. While packing for a move this week, however, I am again regretting that decision. We, very literally (hah!), have hundreds of boxes of books. That is insane. But also explains why we are building a huge library (again) in our new home.

    Sam is getting one of the fancy new Kindles for his 50th birthday on Monday, which may help on that count. We’ll see. Of course, he’s also getting some bound books in the mix. :/

    Anyway, I rarely read to my kids. In spite of my best intentions, I just hate reading aloud. But Sam and I read a ton and our kids read somewhere between pretty often and voraciously.

    That said, I don’t think reading has much inherent value. To me it’s just a tool to get information from one place to another. I don’t so much care if my kids READ as I do that they are able to get valuable/needed information, in whatever form it happens to come.

  33. Velska on August 17, 2009 at 4:55 am

    Reading is definitely valuable. Documentaries can be valuable and useful, too, but the best way to really get comfortable with something is take a book and study it. It’s hard to take a laptop to bed with you. As nice as a Kindle is, my experience is that in bright sunshine the contrast isn’t enough for my eyes.

    Besides, reading is a way to be concentrated on one thing at a time. Multitasking is proving to be harmful to our ability to actually comprehend things.

  34. Velska on August 17, 2009 at 4:59 am

    Oh, yeah, forgot: Kids are individuals. Of our five kids, three turned out voracious readers, with one hardly a reader at all. We have lots of books, read them to our kids, and they saw us reading them.

    Some of our kids still talk about how great it was when I read The Hobbit to them. It was the longest book they had been through yet, and though the younger ones didn’t understand everything, we talked about the things they didn’t.

  35. Bob on August 17, 2009 at 10:12 am

    #33: “…, but the best way to really get comfortable with something is take a book and study it.”
    Again, I love to read. But, the best way to get comfortable with music, is to listen. For Art, see it. For food, taste it. Etc.

  36. Mike on August 18, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Turn off the damn TV if you want your kids to read and to succeed!
    (Did I miss someone else giving this suggestion?)

    My daughter starts college this week. She graduated #2 in her class, with SAT scores in the 720-780 range. She was given a handful of scholarships and turned down admission to Princeton. She is among the top 10-20 high school age violinists in the state. My son is appears to be following in her footsteps academically, although not musically. One of his teachers described him as a walking 6 on any AP test. He was elected Senior Patrol Leader in a non-LDS scout troop with about 80 boys. He is among the top ten on the high school track and cross country team with region championships and he told the football coach where to go because he saw too many friends injured. Both of my kids read quite a bit, although my son reads more, like constantly.

    We have a family room in the house where they both study several hours every day and my wife and I read there to relax. I am generally available most evenings to answer questions or help them. My daughter is noisy and talkative and my son seems like a quiet sponge that absorbs everything she says. I have declared FHE is to be held every night at our house, not just Monday and doing homework together as a family qualifies as an activity.

    This custom began about the time they learned to walk. My daughter learned to read the year before she started school with only modest encouragement from us and she taught her little brother. They are both quite beyond me at this point with their difficult classes and their lap tops and sometimes they retreat elsewhere to study late into the night. My son has been known to read while jumping on the trampoline in a thunderstorm.

    The TV is never turned on. Maybe for the Olympics or some other once-a-year event. Maybe once a month or less they watch a rented video. It is not a matter of a big moralistic battle. TV or stupid video games just aren’t as interesting as anything else they happen to be doing. They can watch TV when we visit relatives or they are hanging out with their friends, which they find boring. When they are not studying they are doing something active.

    Do you think there might be a connection between their many accomplishments and their near complete lack of immersion in the modern media culture? Or rather do you think they inherited their abilities from me? (Refer to some of my other comments, if you think I am that smart).

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