I don’t think my son’s read a book in three months. He aced his English exam into the senior school, intensely mocked what he deemed to be the overwrought textural analysis of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (when clearly enjoying the freedom to go deep and applying it to every conceivable thing from film to general observation), and then rested on his video-game-supported laurels.
‘I hate reading.’ He declared.
‘Well, that makes me either a hypocrite, failure, or dreadful mother.’ I fished.
‘Could be.’ He agreed.
I am the woman who touts reading as essential to life and my book clubs as the gateway to reading. How am I failing with my own son? He, who has every advantage to be up close to my vision, who has been the realisation of my vision up until now. He became a reader, an avid reader. So, what’s going on?
We have control of our children when they’re young. Not necessarily easy control – there may be confrontations, bribes, and ultimatums to get there – but we hold the power with treats, TV, play dates and beautifully constructed reading holes. (O my, I sound like a beast). But as our children enter their teenage years they start to feel their freedom and push against our boundaries. They now have their friends, their interests, their apparent gifts, and they may feel they’ve figured out how to navigate their path. This is a good thing in so many ways, and we want them to become independent and assertive. In making their own decisions they will learn and modify their behaviour – revise for exams, stand up for friends – and presumably not fall over the minute they leave home. However, with choices that seem to have less drastic outcomes, like the decision to read or not, should we just give up beating the drum?
Well, I cannot. I would feel like a hypocrite, failure, and dreadful mother. Knowing the empirical evidence that readers have better mental well-being, emotional intelligence, and intellectual development and having set up Book Club Bunch around these truths, how could I not keep espousing reading! Additionally, in this transparent new world where careers and indeed lives can be lost because of a single tweet, young people desperately need to have thought through who they are, what they stand for, and to have an interest and developed empathy for other people. Sitting inside the lived experience of fictional characters brings us there.
A caveat. I think that some of the books foisted on our young people on school reading lists and class texts and through our own parental ambitions are really putting them off reading. I’ve seen Good Night Mr Tom on a reading list for a seven-year-old and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea on a reading list for a ten-year-old. Just, no! So, remembering that reading should be age appropriate and interest-led, here’s my plan:
- I will not shy away from talking about why reading is important. Raised eyebrows and dismissive hand gestures will not phase me. I know the power of repetition. I often buy something after I’ve been emailed ten times and I’m on the point of unsubscribing. I get so annoyed I finally click and then think, ‘O, yes, why not, I’ll have one of those.’
- I will be reasonable when suggesting half an hour of reading can fit very nicely into a 9-5 of video gaming/tennis/hanging with friends. I’ll talk to him like the adult he thinks he is, as if we are talking about something we agree on that has to do with someone else. We both know it’s good for him. That other him.
- I’ve done my research into books I think he’ll like based on his previous passions: Greek mythology, comedy and autobiography.
- The first book I’m recommending is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hanes. He’s read every novel that’s been published in this genre up until this year. A Thousand Ships is the feminist re-telling of the Trojan War and being a reluctant feminist, this will hopefully also mellow his perspective.
- My second book recommendation is The Summer we Turned Green by William Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe wrote the hilarious The Gifted, The Talented and Me and this book is equally hilarious. (And global warming, people!) Humour, especially humour levelled against mums, really helps during a reluctant reading phase. I’m also considering this book for a book club, and I want his view.
- The third book I’m recommending is Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I was late to the party with this one myself, but I found it compelling and necessary. When my young man was eleven, he selected and read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, 558 pages. Becoming will interest but not tax him, surely.
So, I’m going to persist, but in a reasonable, non-needling tone – hard though that seems to be – and I’m going to let him know how well I think he’s managing his time, fitting in that half an hour of reading a day. O, and I’m going to suggest he limit himself to half an hour. There’s nothing like a limit to guarantee rebellion. There will be treats and comfortable reading holes, there may even be concessions on chores. But as long as there’s breath in my body there will be reading.