How to Make Your Children Hate Reading

I had an experience the other day that broke my heart and made me angry and inspired me to write this post.  I’m going to call this a direct companion to my post aimed at getting children to love reading:Overcoming Reading Resistance.  This is the necessary corollary: How to make children HATE reading.

I was at the thrift store doing my usual scan of the shelves when a mother and daughter came into the aisle to look for books too.  I smiled at the girl (who was, by my estimation, 7-8 years old) excited for her as I heard the mother ask her to find some books she’d like to read.  She immediately started pulling out some picture books with excitement when her mother immediately grabbed them from her and shoved then back on the shelf, “Those are for little kids; you’ve already learned that stuff.  You need to pick out some chapter books you like.”  The girl obediently abandoned the picture book section and dejectedly went looking for a chapter book… which brings me to point number one on how to make your kid hate reading:

1- Push them to start reading. Then push them through the early stages of reading. Then keep pushing and never let them linger.  Picture books are emphatically NOT just for the 8 and under set! I have one child who reads Tolkien one minute but is happy to revisit Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (recommended for “children 4-8”) the next. Another son of mine reads at a 7th grade level and will still pull out Go, Dog. Go! just for kicks sometime. I have one friend who told me (when her daughter was 10) that she loved reading this blog but that she felt like they were “done” with the picture book stage. (Okay, in my defense, I post about the occasional chapter book! And another thing, since when is someone like Shaun Tan, just for kids?! Finally, if a person of ANY age does not enjoy reading A Hole Is to Dig… they simply have no humanity in them. And I’m not interested in persons with shriveled up raisins for hearts reading this blog anyway.) There is a familiarity and warmth in picture books that helps to build confidence for struggling readers. Reading isn’t about who can do it the fastest or stressing about your 3 year old not knowing all his letters yet. It’s the building of a relationship with the written word. And I don’t care what your teacher says, that is something that can’t and certainly shouldn’t be rushed.  Acting like reading is simply a skill that has to be mastered is a surefire way to kill any kind of lasting relationship with books.

2- Never buy books. “A house without books is like a body without a soul…” Kids see what we spend money on. We spend money on what is important to us. Period. What are the most important things in your home? Demonstrate that books aren’t nearly as important as your Netflix membership, new iPhone, or stylish leather boots by simply not buying them.  And the hierarchy of value will be very evident when you gift your young children with lots of light-up, bleeping toys but not any books.

3- Never read books.  Children mimic their parents. If I spend all day glued to my iPad, they get itchy wanting electronic time too. If they see that I spend my leisure time reading a book, they get the hint that there is something valuable there. Parents whose children hate reading might consider taking a look at their own habits.  Here’s an article with pretty good insight about that. If you don’t like reading, learn to. That’s really the long and short of it.

4- Insist on your own tastes and never explore other types of material. Maybe your child doesn’t want to curl up to a lovely Beatrix Potter tale and would rather consume Garfield comics instead. Oh wait. That is my child. My children don’t have a finely cultivated taste yet. I see some signs of thoughtfulness when we discuss what makes a “good book” or a book that they would want to read again or keep forever. They are being trained to look for certain qualities. Still, they love Garfield and Captain Underpants. I know parents who absolutely refuse this sort of reading because they are determined that little Jilly dear will just LOVE Anne of Green Gables and darn it! She WILL read it, or else! Listen… I was broken-hearted when my son started snoozing through The Wind in the Willows. I tried twice but he felt like it was torture! I almost felt personally offended over it and mourned the lives of Mole and Mr. Toad that would never be experienced!  But I swallowed my hurt and moved on to something else. This happens. Some kids want to read comic books. Some might want to read how-to manuals. Some will go through a joke book phase. Be patient. Be creative. Find what interests the child. I’m not one who believes all children should be reading Harry Potter and the Twilight series just because “any reading is good reading.” Not at all.  There is an important value in reading longstanding, classic novels and for reading books that don’t immediately grab you and interest you. But there is time for that yet; we’re building a relationship remember? You can’t put a ball and chain on the kid before the courtship has properly blossomed.

5- Watch lots of TV.  Play lots of video games. Be smartphone addicted.  I’d like to think this is obvious. But it bears an important reminder. Okay so not only does excessive electronic media damage attention spans and literally rewire important brain neurons needed for reading (check it out), but it trumps the feelings of an inspired stillness in a child.  If there is “nothing to do”—media saturated kids are bored. They are waiting to be entertained or distracted by a screen. But if media is severely limited… and I’m afraid I do mean severely… kids who have “nothing to do” learn to entertain themselves. They invent games, create possibilities out of nothingness and most importantly… find a friend or an adventure waiting for them in a book. If you struggle to get your child to settle down enough for a book try getting some large muscle movement outside first— 20 minutes of hard, red-cheeked play will often buy you an hour of calm. (See the Overcoming post for more ideas)  One disclaimer worth mentioning: if you just had a baby or are newly pregnant or have sick children or need 30 minutes of peace, please don’t feel guilty about the TV thing. You are in the season of life where you desperately need the electronic babysitter effect from electronics and don’t beat yourself up over this thinking you’re failing all your Waldorf or Montessori ideals and what would the other Attachment Parenters think?! Gasp! It’s a season; get over it. Sometimes you just have to survive. It’s okay.  My toddlers spent many, many hours glued to Kipper the Dog episodes after I had my last child and they still love books. But I really do try for electronics to be the exception, rather than the norm… but I don’t get all bent out of shape when I want to take a shower in peace…

6- Obsess about reading comprehension. One of the quickest—and sadly most commonly employed—ways to kill the natural love for reading is to insist on children always looking up words they don’t know, telling or ‘reporting’ about what they read, analyzing what the author meant and nitpicking away at the style and structure of a piece of literature. I’m going to say something shocking: it’s okay if you don’t understand everything you read!  In school, some of the classics I was forced to read were The Odyssey, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter.  Guess how many of those I enjoyed?  Zero. And knowing what I know about myself and about the plot of Jane Eyre, I’m pretty convinced I would love that book if I read it under my own volition. And I read The Children’s Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy with my children last year and we all loved it. But I have been scarred from the original tale. Yet, when I was 13 years old, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead over the summer just for fun and absolutely loved it. I didn’t understand most of what I read in that book and some of it went totally over my head, but the way Ayn Rand wrote just grabbed me and challenged me and made me want to think a little bit deeper about life. All of that wonder and excitement would have been obliterated if I was asked to do a book report on it.
Forced reading and forced judging is an intrusion on the natural relationship between a reader and author. It’s like an arranged marriage… being put through some kind of reality show.  As an adult, I enjoy almost every classic book I read now and I can understand why they’ve endured the test of time—speaking to the universal and shared experiences of humanity. But as a kid, I hated, hated, hated having to dissect every bit about a piece of literature. I quickly learned to scan through books and anticipate questions teachers would ask just so I could get on with my life.  I really like what John Holt had to say about reading comprehension… highly recommended.

So there you have it.  Six of the very best ways to ruin a love of reading in a child!

“We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.” 
-John Holt

11 thoughts on “How to Make Your Children Hate Reading

  1. Kansas Mom

    Excellent! I have one more to add: Hang out with only other non-reading families and kids. Nothing inspires interest in reading a book like a Redwall-themed birthday party, a romp through the backyard playing Treasure Island, or a heated discussion of the merits of the final book of the Hero's Guide trilogy. (Shh – don't tell us what happens; we just got it from the library!)

  2. Adriel Scarborough

    This great post encouraged me to talk to my husband about our media consumption and our child, to encourage him to use his summer to read instead of play on the screen for his downtime.
    I would also like to recommend the Wind in the Willows graphic novel illustrated by Michel Plissex. It is stunningly detailed and beautiful. My five year old LOVES comics of all kinds, and this one was a pleasure to read to him, and I expect he will enjoy it even more when he learns to read it himself.

    1. Ellie

      Thanks for chiming in Adriel. I checked out the comic link… it looks like a pretty great "second best" option for some of those classics children might balk at reading. 🙂

  3. Cyndi Lou

    Having my son had made me reevaluate how I spend my time, both with him and away from him. Luckily we are a household of readers, but we love our TV time too. Maybe a little too much. When I watch children's programming with him, we actively watch. We also read to him everyday, but I think there will be less TV and computers when he's with us, and more exploration of our surroundings. Thank you for this wonderful post!

    1. Ellie

      So glad to hear it. Time invested reading or being outside is never "time lost"… whereas time in front of a screen is always at the sacrifice of something greater than could be had, in my opinion…


    I'm reminded of The Gutenberg Elegies in which Steven Birkerts writes about how when he as a child discovered reading he also learned about the very *private* world books provided for him to visit at will. If adults are always asking nosy questions about your reading, or asking you to analyze what's going on between you and the author or characters, it could easily ruin the budding relationships.

    Once during our homeschooling years I was talking to a high school English teacher about our adolescent son's (voluntary) reading habits. She was impressed with the books he was reading, and suggested that I "just" have him write a book report about each one…I'm sure that was the only way she could think that the reading would "count" for anything. I told our son about her suggestion and he said that if he had to do that he would just stop reading.

    1. Kansas Mom

      I'm so glad to read your comment! My homeschooled 10 year old reads from books I assign all year round, but I basically never ask him to do anything with them. About the most I've ever done is ask him, "What's happening now in your book?" I often think I should be doing more, so it's nice to read about your son and think maybe I'm doing the right thing after all.

    2. Ellie

      Good point. And so true. It's hard because as a homeschooling parent, I think narrations are valuable. So I am always trying to find that balance between getting in some good feedback/narration and allowing the child to purely enjoy what he's reading. Normally, I ask for narrations on our school assignments/readings… but when the kids do their personal reading time, I just let that be. One of my kids wants to tell me every detail about what he's reading anyway. Ha!

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