Once upon a time, there was a kid who groaned whenever their parent mentioned their school reading log. "Just a few more pages," the parent would plead. "Ugh," the kid would reply. The kid spent car rides absorbed in tablets, not texts, and come birthday season, each time they opened a present with a book inside, their little face drooped. The parent worried the child would always hate to read; the child worried their parent would harass them about reading until the end of time. And they all lived unhappily ever after.
If this tale sounds familiar, know that you're not the only one living it. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the rate of recreational reading among children has fallen sharply in the last 40 years. Among nine-year-old students, for example, 42% said in 2020 that they read every day for fun — but in 1984, that figure was 53%. Among thirteen-year-olds, 17% now read daily for pleasure, a dispiriting drop from the 35% who did in 1984.
At first blush, the reason may seem straightforward: Hello, screens! But relying too heavily on that explanation can obscure a few that are more nuanced and personalized. There are several possible reasons why reading may not be a joyful activity for a child, according to parenting education site Understood.org — or at least, why it isn't yet. For example, your child may not have experienced the thrill of getting wrapped up in a story yet, so they know reading mostly as a chore done at school, the stuff of academic drudgery. Or it may be that your child struggles with the mechanics of reading more than you realize, which can make attempting it frustrating, something they may have difficulty communicating.
If your child belongs to the book-averse club, one of the wisest strategies for growing their love of literature is to find stealthy ways to sneak the marvelous parts of reading into their lives. To do so, take a page from Carolina Dammert of Encantos — a children's publishing company focused on diverse characters and multimedia storytelling — who is herself a mom of two avid young readers.
1. Encourage them to read stories they relate to.
"Kids want to feel seen and heard," Dammert tells Scary Mommy. "They want to see themselves in the books they read." So, if all you've put in front of your child is Johnny Tremain or The Witch of Blackbird Pond, it may be that they just can't connect with the material. Instead, nudge them toward books that overlap with their own lived experience. And yet, at the same time…
2. Let them pick what they read.
This is crucial, says Dammert, who takes her kids to the library on a regular basis so they can discover what appeals to them (without her going bankrupt on book purchases). "As much as we want to pick the books they have around, they need to figure out what they like," she says. Yes, it's painful to watch your child shun your vintage Judy Blumes or ignore that nook you filled with Caldecott winners. But building an innate love of reading is about broadening your child's interests — not demanding that they share your own. Not to mention, there is no child alive who doesn't thrill at the words "Go ahead, choose whatever you want."
3. Don't forbid illustrations (or crappy books).
You might protest that your eight-year-old "ought" to be reading chapter books, but we're here to foster a love of reading, not to demoralize a kid who just can't get down with a big hunk of text. So, if they gravitate toward graphic novels or some junior-reader series with "fart" in the title, just go with it. "It might not be what you want as a parent," says Dammert, "but as they read, you'll see their tastes evolve." In other words, that shlocky selection may be the gateway book your kid needs to fall in love with stories.
4. Make it a joint activity — and a cuddly one.
Your child may not love trudging through a book alone, but few kids say no to one-on-one attention from a parent. "When you're reading together," Dammert advises, "ask questions as you go. 'What did you notice on that page?' 'Did you see that?'" Really put your back into the narration, too, advises Dammert: "Make it funny, do voices, change lines to see if they're paying attention — that always makes my kids laugh — and in general, just try to be engaging," she says. Finally, the key to making reading a regular thing is to — wait for it — read regularly, with a designated time and place for the activity. "We make it a cuddle moment," Dammert says. "It can't be a rushed activity. We take a breath and let the day go, then move into storytime. It's a nice release of tension in the evening before bed."
5. Get them in on the action.
When you're reading aloud together, take turns. "I like to trade off, where I read a page and then they read one," says Dammert. "The back-and-forth helps them feel more invested in the story." And if your child's reading skills are lagging, this is a precious chance to strengthen them together.
6. Start the story in the car; finish it at home.
This may be the sneakiest trick of all: Turn on an engaging audiobook while driving with your kids. Once they're hooked, pull into the driveway and announce that you'd be happy to continue the story inside — on paper instead of via your Audible account.
7. Stay tuned in to the books they're reading.
Dammert likes to keep abreast of her kids' reading habits so she can join in on the experience — a brilliant way to deepen a child's understanding of the text. "If they're reading something on their own," she says, "I'll read it too so we can have a mini book club." She also talks to the parents of her kids' friends, asking what their kids are reading so she can suggest the same books to her own children. "That way," Dammert says, "they can all talk about the book together."
8. Give them plenty of chances.
In the same way that your pediatrician encourages you to "push fluids" whenever your child is sick, push books as much as you can (without making your kids nuts, of course). "When my kids say they're bored, I take out one of their books," says Dammert. "I always have one in the backseat pocket in the car. If they ask to use the iPad, I ask them to read for 10 or 15 minutes first." In other words, there are a dozen daily opportunities to present the option — and before you know it, your child is likely to take you up on it.