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Dana Gioia Shares the Key to Your Teen’s Success


John Burger - published on 01/28/14

How can parents get their children to read?

Parents need to remember they are parents. I have two sons who were in good schools, neither of whom in their teenage years read much. In fact, they claimed they did not enjoy reading. There were many other things — video games, Facebook, TV, etc. — that they would rather do instead. I simply created time when they were not allowed to do any of the electronic diversions, and they had to either sit there in silence or they could read. They complained, they moaned, they groaned. Six months later, they were eager and happy readers. Kids need to get over the hump of developing those mental muscles that reading requires. Once they do, reading becomes very fulfilling to them. Parents have to be strong enough to create quiet time in which kids can read and to enforce that. I guarantee you, if the kids have good books, the books do the rest. Let them read entertaining things; let them read science fiction or adventure. Find something that they like, and you can then trust them to pursue their interests.

How can parents get started, particularly if they haven’t been in the habit of reading to their children, or if their older children are not in the habit of picking up a good book?

The main reason adults claim they have become readers was that their parents read to them. The second reason is that they saw their parents read. So if the parent says, “Get the hell out of here; I’m reading a book,” that’s better than nothing.

So many successful behaviors are family behaviors — so many unsuccessful ones, too. Parents who set a good example for their kids have a pretty good long-term impact on them. So what parents should do when they’re younger is read to them so they get used to hearing words rather than just watching television. And then as the kids get old enough that they don’t want to be read to any more, have them read. Take the iPad away; turn the TV off; turn the computer off. Be confident that as a parent you know some things better than the kids do, no matter what the kids tell you.

Are there any good reading lists available?

There are many lists. I think one could do far worse than giving the kids some classic books. When I was young, I used to read Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan of the Apes,A Princess of Mars. It’s only when I went back to them as an adult that I realized what a huge vocabulary Burroughs had. Burroughs, writing in 1912 for average kids, had a vocabulary you wouldn’t use in college now. That’s how bad reading skills have gotten. My students at USC do not have a working vocabulary that college students had 30 years ago. Why? Because they don’t need it. They only need the vocabulary that’s on television and the internet.

You learn from history that civilizations sometimes lose capacities. It took a thousand years to catch up to Roman engineering. Romans understood things that got lost. I worry that reading, which is a cumulative learned skill that makes our brain do something that’s not quite natural for the brain but which our brain is fully capable of doing, is a capacity — indeed, a talent — we are losing collectively in our society.

John Burger is a freelance writer covering mostly topics in Catholicism. He has worked as a reporter and editor at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, and his articles have appeared in Human Life Review, Legatus and Family Foundations, as well as online at Fathers for Good and Catholic World Report.

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