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Famed Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl was asked recently how to get a middle-grades child to read. The child’s parent said she’d tried requiring a set amount of reading time in order to earn video game privileges but that her child wasn’t reading with any pleasure. Instead, he was reading in a mechanical way, as if he was being forced to eat his vegetables. What, the mother asked, was she doing wrong? And, more importantly, what could she do right?

Before I get to Nancy Pearl’s suggestion of what to do, let’s look at why what this mother did wasn’t working. The problem is economic. The child was having to pay for something he wanted by doing something it was assumed he didn’t want to do. Just as requiring vegetables to get to dessert sends the message that the parent agrees that ice cream is more desirable than broccoli, requiring reading to get to video games sends the message that reading is a chore, like making the bed, that has to be dispatched before being allowed to go out to play.

Setting up these if-then contingencies creates a value system. The activity of greater value is what must be bought by a less-valued activity. In the parent’s scenario, reading can never be fun for her child, since she’s already designated it as much less-fun than video games.

  1. The first step in the solution to this problem is to uncouple video game play and reading. Instead of insisting that reading be done before games can be played, just limit the amount of video game play per day and require a certain amount of reading each day. No activity –reading or video games – should dominate the child’s time. Every child should get outside, should make things, and should play with friends, as well as reading and enjoying screen time.
  2. At the same time, act as if what the child is reading is interesting. Ask him about the plot, about the characters, what he likes or doesn’t like about the way the author writes, and so on. Let him read aloud to you a passage he thinks is funny. Value his reading, not just as a ticket to something else, but as something interesting all on its own.
  3. And then, as Nancy Pearl suggests, get the right books in front of your child. Perl suggests concentrating on funny books, even if these aren’t always books of literary merit. In addition, books of amazing feats, weird science, and strange facts are usually interesting to middle school kids, despite their sometimes lack of reliability. All reading is good reading. Let your child read what he wants.

What if your child is required by his school to read a list of books over the summer? And what if he thinks these books are deadly dull? Again, separate this task from his own reading for pleasure. And because it’s separate, do it differently. Read these books together, working together to get them all read by the start of the school year. Your child will get more out of the experience than if he plodded through these on his own, because he’ll be able to talk with you about the story and you’ll be able to add your own insights. Just don’t let this sort of reading be confused with his own fun reading. Let him feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this homework task and a sense of fun in doing his own reading of what he likes.

Most of all, try not to tie reading to rewards or punishment. Make some reading every day a requirement but also put books in front of your child that he wants to read.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

With the long structured school days coming to an end, children have their sought after freedom from constant direction and the pressure of adult time schedules. After the initial newness of vacation wears off, cries of boredom may become a parent’s latest undoing.

What happens to you when you hear, “I’m bored. What do I do?” after days and months of getting-out-the-door struggles and frustrated cries of, “I don’t want to go to school.” Is it tempting to say, “Aren’t you ever happy? All year you complain that you never have any free time and now you do and you’re bored.” Do you feel resentful and come out with things like, “I’m not your social director. Figure it out for yourself.”

What does it mean to feel bored? There is nothing that has to be done, nothing that is compelling you to act. You lack motivation and interest in the present moment, you may feel restless and agitated. Let’s face it, for most of us, boredom brings us face-to-face with ourselves, which can allow space for any number of unpleasant feelings and realizations. We spend most our time making sure that doesn’t happen. We add activity to activity, we become workaholics, we stay plugged into computers, ipads or cell phones, or we dull our senses with drugs, food, or video games. We make sure we never have to be alone with ourselves.

Boredom has a bad rep. Most of us think being bored means we’re lazy, lethargic, inactive, selfish, dull, not taking responsibility for all that needs to be done. So when our children complain about being bored, we feel angry, irritated, and resentful because we see them in this same light, and may even feel at fault for not raising better worker bees. We slip right into thinking they are lazy, can’t think for themselves, won’t do anything on their own, can’t come up with any number of things we can think of that they could or should be doing. When we define boredom this way, we logically feel frustrated or annoyed and thus react in any number of ways that put our children down, send messages of inadequacy, or simply express our impatience and irritation—a logical outcome when believing there is something wrong, misguided, and undirected about a child who feels bored.

But what if that’s not the case? What if you thought how wonderful it was that your child has the opportunity to be bored? Think of the possibility in boredom. Isn’t boredom a necessary precursor to creativity and invention? Think of what there is to be discovered in the depths of boredom. Inspiration needs emptiness to breed. It rarely comes out of constant doing. When a child feels inspired, accomplishment follows organically.

Meditation is the act of stilling the mind so the present moment can be experienced. Most of us don’t stop long enough to be in the present moment, notice what is in front of our eyes or appreciate the sounds and smells and feelings of right now. In allowing boredom, you are granting the experience of the present moment—even if it’s filled with frustration.

When you think you have to come up with activities or create some kind of stimulation for your child to keep her busy, you enable her dependence and are in fact sending a message that she is incapable of taking care of herself. By taking responsibility for filling her time, you interfere with her own creative process and ingenuity.

Imagine if your response to “I’m bored” is, “Oh, you are so lucky. What a great thing to feel bored. Amazing things are about to happen. You’ll come up with something, I know. When you do, let me know. I’ll be interested to hear what that mind of yours invents.” Think what you are setting in motion! Think what message that sends to a frustrated child. The frustration will morph into something quite different. Maybe not immediately, but soon enough.

Unfortunately, many children will still have little time to be bored if they continue in structured care throughout the summer. And with technology ever present, children don’t get the opportunity to be bored. All the more reason to set parameters around screen time from an early age so that video games and texting are not the only fillers when there is nothing else to do.

Try spending time doing nothing with your child. Try, “I really want to do absolutely nothing right now. Will you do nothing with me?” Then go sit on the porch or cuddle on the couch and just be. Focus on what you can observe right then. There might be a bird neither of you would have otherwise noticed or bugs in the grass that inspire wondering. Let your child know how wonderful it can be to be bored—oh, the possibilities. Boredom is a luxury of childhood. Make sure it is allowed on a regular basis.

A friend mentioned last week she was putting together an order to an online seed merchant and it sent me off to look through seed catalogs to find interesting veggies I could grow myself this year. Certainly homegrown vegetables are good for you. Now a new study from the journal Horticultural Technology points out that the gardening itself is good for kids, even before they eat what they’ve grown.

Researchers measured children’s level of activity as they performed 10 ordinary gardening tasks in 5-minute sessions, separated by 5-minute rest times. This meant that the children worked for 50 minutes, five minutes at a time, in digging, raking, weeding, mulching, hoeing, sowing seeds, harvesting, watering, mixing growing medium, and planting transplants. Using technology to measure children’s heart rate, oxygen use, and energy expenditure, scientists were able to categorize digging and raking as “high-intensity” activities, and the eight other tasks as being of moderate intensity.

Growing a garden – even in small time slots – is good for kids. It uses their muscles, builds strength and coordination, and gets them outdoors.

Of course, growing a garden also provides experience in how plants grow, in measuring and marking off a garden plot, in decision making of all sorts, including what to grow and whether the garden needs more water, and in the sorts of creatures who live in the soil and fly by overhead. Growing a garden makes a person smarter.

And then, of course, there’s the eating. Junk food doesn’t grow, only good food does. Naturally, growing food adds to the nutrition of your family table. The fun of picking and washing what a child grew himself makes it more likely he’ll take a taste.

I don’t have much space – last year I just grew things in big plastic pots at the top of the driveway. Find a sunny place in your yard or on the balcony. Then try growing any of these:

If you have a large-ish spot in the yard, grow pumpkins.

Now is the time, when winter seems endless, to start thinking about spring. Look through a seed catalog with your children and pick out a few things to grow in your little backyard farm. Get ready for spring and get ready for activity, thinking and delicious eating.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.