SocietyJuly 11, 2024

Help Me Hera: How do I raise my kid to be a reader?


Is it selfish to want your children to love the same things as you?

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Dear Hera,

As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I spent all my spare time reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. I have a few nieces who are about to be teenagers soon, and even though I’ve given them heaps of books over the years, neither of them have expressed much of an interest in reading. Which is fine! They are both beautiful and interesting people with their own weird hobbies and passions (worm farms and surfing 😂). But I can’t help feeling like they’re missing out on something!  

My partner and I are having our first baby this year and we couldn’t be more excited. We’ve always talked about having a big family. Maybe it’s selfish to want your kids to love the same things as you. But I really, really want my kids to be readers. I want to share the books I loved with them, and have them love them too. But do kids even like books anymore? Am I just trying to foist my own hobbies on them? And how do I compete against the tyrant Bluey? 

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades


First of all, congratulations on your baby! 

It’s very wise and philosophical of you to acknowledge that your future children are people with their own personalities and interests. But if it’s selfish to want kids to love to read, then call me Ulf Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestlé.

There’s been a lot of panic about kids’ literacy rates in the news recently, and I don’t know what to think about it. But trying to solve the problem through rigorous standards-based assessment, while funnelling the education budget to charter schools doesn’t exactly seem like a visionary approach. Forgive me for being sentimental, but books are more than just structured literacy units for maximising phonic comprehension. Books open the door to children’s linguistic and imaginative potential. A good book can make you feel at home in the world. 

The evidence proves, again and again, that the best way to teach children to read, is to get them to love books. And the best way to get kids to love books, is to read to them. Every night, if possible. Even after they’ve learned to read, and no longer need your help. Even when they have a mortgage and a family of their own, and are working in a small rural vet practice. Make it a special routine you look forward to at the end of every day. 

If you don’t know how to read aloud to kids, don’t worry. Children are good teachers. They will let you know when they’re bored. For babies, stick to short books with noises and flaps and rhyme. (The Noisy Book by Soledad Bravi.) As they get older, it’s fun to pick something with lots of potential for interaction, or a great rhyme. Do you see where the mouse has hidden his toothbrush? Can you see the monkey in the apron? What noise does a crocodile make? (Would You Rather by John Burningham. Dazzlehands by Josh Morgan and Sacha Cotter.)

If you’re planning on having a baby shower and don’t want a thousand Scandinavian bamboo onesies or infant scalp massagers, you could ask people to bring a picture book they loved as a gift. Books are relatively inexpensive and last forever.

As your kid or kids get older, let them choose their own books. That doesn’t mean you can’t pick a few of your old favourites to read. But it should be a shared activity. Make a habit of going to the library and letting your kid borrow whatever they feel like, even if you suspect Michael Caine’s autobiography is too advanced. Make it a special outing. Take them to feed the ducks on the way home. Take turns reading to the ducks.

Don’t stop reading to your kids when they learn to read. Kids get turned away from books when books stop feeling like an escape, and begin to feel like homework. Keep up the nightly storytimes. If you want to work on their reading skills and comprehension, find another time – 10 minutes after school, say, where you read a book together. Ask them words you know they already know. Take turns reading the Elephant and Piggie books in different voices. Turn on the television subtitles (apparently). Let them read graphic novels and comics. The speech bubbles provide good clues and context for new words. 

Ignore recommended reading ages. Never tell them something is too young or too old. If your seven-year-old wants to read Where the Wild Things are, let them! I’ve seen so many grandparents come to the bookshop, and try and talk their beloved grandchild out of buying the latest Captain Underpants in favour of Wild Fang. If you want them to love Wild Fang, you better read it to them yourself, and howl at appropriate intervals. Only being able to read developmentally appropriate books is boring. If your child is having nightmares about plane crashes, it makes sense to keep Hatchet by Gary Paulsen on a high shelf. But any book that gets a child interested in reading is a good book, even if that book is ‘Terrible Tales of Medieval Torture’ or ‘Even MORE Facts About Hammerhead Sharks!’ 

Going on a long car trip? Get an audiobook and listen to it together. Let your kid have extended bedtimes if they are reading. Pretend not to notice. Let your children see you read, and that reading is not just for children. 

And talk to a bookseller or librarian! The best part of the job is trying to find a book for a fussy child, with a fervent passion for scarecrows or ladybirds. Or even the “tyrant Bluey”. 

There’s a beautiful and entertaining book by Daniel Pennac called Rights of the Reader, which might be of interest to you. But as long as you’re introducing your kid to a steady diet of books, and having a nice time together, you have nothing to worry about. 

I also don’t think you shouldn’t give up on your almost-teenage nieces yet! The transition from children’s fiction to the YA section can be startling. But there must be some good books about worm farming and surfing out there. Please leave any suggestions in the comments below. Sometimes all it takes is the right book at the right time.

Keep going!