We are a family of readers, so when my seven-year old daughter announced, “I just don’t like to read, Mama,” I didn’t know what to do. She’s in a year-round school, so for weeks I’d been struggling to get her interested in her obligatory “thirty minutes” of reading before bedtime. She was fine if I read to her, but had no interest in doing any part of it herself. Any attempt to get her to read so much as a sentence ended in glares and huffs and a battle of wills that I inevitably lost.
Had I failed as a mother?
I looked back on my life, seeking something to blame. Too much coffee during pregnancy? Letting her eat too many cookies? Maybe she was living in the shadow of her older brother, who started decoding words when he was three and read independently by kindergarten. It was entirely possible she was normal—I suppose I realized not everyone had to LOVE reading the way I did—but come on, she didn’t even want to read MY BOOK. The one I wrote for my children. Or any chapter book, for that matter—she kept picking out picture books she’d read since preschool, and which I was getting tired of reading over and over again.
Something was at fault. I had to find it.
I scrutinized the issue with my husband. “She does watch an awful lot of TV,” he pointed out.
Ah ha. I had my culprit.
The next day, we instituted a major change in policy: Cutting screen time in half. The kids’ hour a day on school days was down to 30 minutes. My son offered that, to be consistent, we should really decrease it on weekends too. My daughter did not take it so well.
“But that’s only ONE EPISODE of My Little Pony!” she wailed.
My explanation of childhood before Netflix and cartoons on demand was met with the expected response: “But that only leaves me less than 10 minutes to check my Sims!”
I was strong. I stuck to the new plan. And something amazing happened.
That night, instead of watching TV, she offered to help me make dinner. Nope, it wasn’t reading. But while I was instructing her in the art of combining sauce, noodles, and cheese, I said, “You can never have too much cheese on lasagna. Hey, that would be a good name for a book.”
She said, “I’m going to write it. Right now.”
Half an hour later, she had the draft of an illustrated children’s book. An hour after that, the meal was done, and so was her manuscript. She read it to us at dinner.
There are many paths to literacy in childhood. Not every child is going to love learning to read or be an avid reader. What I was doing with my daughter wasn’t working. But when I created the space for her, she filled it with writing. Writing is available to children long before reading is—all they need is the alphabet and a crayon.
One of the things I did was cut back on screen time. It would be easy to say that was the most important intervention. But the other thing I did was stop pushing my daughter. In too few years, she won’t let me read to her at night. Why am I in such a hurry to see her grow up? She’ll do it all too fast, before I’m ready.
My daughter is finding her own path to reading. I can’t lead her there. But if I pay attention, I can follow.