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Trust Your Kids To Read Widely

The world of ideas is not always safe. It cannot be effectively curated. Instead, it must be wrestled with. Kids are capable of this wrestling.


To get your kids to love reading, I’m a big fan of the uncurated approach. The trick to loving reading is that it’s a treat, not a chore, and a choice, not an obligation.

My home growing up was filled with books, some of them passed down through the family for generations. I can still remember wandering into the silent, empty living room and picking a Mark Twain book out of the set some ancestor had bought. I’d read a few lines of the first page. If it didn’t grab me, I’d move on to another book. Once one got me, I’d snuggle down on the couch and read for an afternoon.

No one checked. No one really cared much if or what I read. Eventually I read almost everything in that room, but at my own pace and following my own interest.

I followed the same pattern with my own kids, eventually with the same collection of books passed down to my household. Our house was full of good books and some just okay books. The kids browsed, read what they liked, discarded what they didn’t.

A Wide Diet of Ideas

It all changed when we bought electronic readers for the kids—for the better. Now they could browse beyond what we had in the house or the library had on the shelves. We signed up for the program on Amazon that has thousands of free or nearly free books. The kids download what they like and read.

Sometimes we ask them what they are reading and discuss it with them. Most of the time we do not. One son spent probably a year reading the Harry Potter series, finishing, starting over again. It fed something in him that bore repetition.

As the kids branched out from safe chapter books into the rougher waters of more grown-up literature, I worried a little. My eldest latched on early to Douglas Adams and his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series.” Smart, ironic, and beautifully written, the books are also my favorite. So I knew them well enough to know that they have not only sex scenes, but also atheistic themes.

After taking a deep breath, I reflected that I learned a lot about sex and love and ideas from books, the nuance and pain of desire as well as the joy of fulfillment. If the kids are going to learn—and they surely will—there are far worse ways than through the wisdom of humanity as seen in literature.

Inspiring a Love for Books

The kid went on to read “Les Miserables,” the unabridged version, for fun, something I could have never made him do if I or the school had assigned it. I consider that a win. He has not become an atheist but, thanks to Adams, can understand and respect how people with different opinion operate.

The world of ideas is not always safe. It cannot be effectively curated. Instead, it must be wrestled with. Kids are capable of this wrestling. They tend to select what they are ready for and filter out what is too difficult.

Years ago I read a quote, now lost to me, that suggested books should be a person’s greatest vice. It suggested buying books should cost just a bit more than you can afford and reading should take up more time than is really reasonable. Reading, for kids, should be the thing they get away with, the thing they do under the covers by flashlight after lights out, the thing they get to do when mom is not bugging them with chores. There’s a certain glee to that, a sense of mischief, and a powerful draw.