By C. Christopher Smith
Although I focus primarily on churches and neighborhoods in my book Reading for the Common Good, many of the reasons for reading in community are equally true for families. Indeed, most people’s first experiences with reading happen in the home.
Reading can play a vital role for families as we strive to discern our identity, asking questions like “where are we?” and “what is our purpose as a family?” Similarly, reading can help our families navigate questions of vocation and economy: Which parent(s) will earn income? Will they work full- or part-time? What kind of work will they do? Our families are also embedded in the communities of church and neighborhood, and these communities will also guide us as we wrestle with these sorts of economic questions.
How do we raise children who not only love to read, but also read in ways that help them be more attentive to the people and the creation around them? I posed this question to my Slow Church coauthor John Pattison.
John and his wife, Kate, have two young daughters who are voracious readers and book lovers. John noted that one of the most important disciplines of their family is reading aloud daily with the girls. The girls eagerly anticipate this time of reading with their parents. They have tried to empower their girls to read, buying them good books and taking them to the library and encouraging them to find books there they are excited to read.
I have talked to a number of friends recently about the ways they nurture the love of reading in their children. Most have agreed that things work best when the child reads mostly books he or she is excited about and wants to read; some suggested subtle ways of making recommendations (giving books as gifts, choosing books to read aloud together) that still allow the child to mostly read along the lines of her interests.
One parent said that for a child too young to read on her own, “reading books about certain seasons and holidays has really improved her vocabulary and made her more aware of the world around her. She’s more perceptive to the changing colors of leaves and big spring rainstorms because she has just read a stack of library books that had those things in them.”
Read and Discuss
As children get older and do more reading on their own, my friends agreed that it is helpful for parents to find ways to talk with their kids about what they are reading. These conversations are helpful for bonding kids and parents, but that’s not all. Done with a bit of mindfulness about connecting the reading with the child’s experience in the world, such talk can also be profoundly helpful in his or her formation as an engaged church member, neighbor, and citizen.
Many parents I spoke with agreed that limiting time on electronic devices was helpful to promoting the enjoyment of reading. John said their girls generally are allowed only to have screen time once they have spent a significant amount of time reading.
One friend made the distinction between helping kids love reading and helping them love good stories. In addition to stories that are read, the latter allows for imaginative storytelling made up on the fly. Teaching our kids to love good stories prepares them well for engaging the scriptural story and for identifying themselves within its contours.
Habits of reading for the common good often begin at home and flourish over a lifetime in the interwoven communities of church, home, and neighborhood.
C. Christopher Smith is a member of Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books.