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How Not To Read Aloud to Kids

Want to make your children hate books forever? Here are some tips to keep them from reading—or, for book-loving parents, pitfalls to avoid

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Joan Crawford, pictured reading to her daughter Christina in June 1944, serves as a cautionary tale about what happens when parents read to their children. (Gene Lester/Getty Images)

Parents, let me share a little secret. You needn’t read to your children at all. They have Angry Birds to play on your iPhone and New Super Mario Brothers to play on their DS. And studies show that by the time today’s 3-year-old has graduated from high school, the Spiderman movie franchise will have been rebooted 47 times. Your child is probably sexting right now. There is really no point to my explaining to you how not to read to your child, but I am going to do it anyway, in the Talmudic tradition of being pointlessly argumentative.

1. Do not set aside 15 minutes to read each day.

If you set aside 15 minutes to read each day, at bedtime or before bath, you will turn reading together into a habit. You know what kind of people have habits? Junkies.

2. Don’t read with expression.

God forbid you sound animated or engaged in what you’re reading. Read like an emotionless robot. Kids love robots. Don’t go slowly for the suspenseful parts or speed up for the scary parts or do voices for the characters or take dramatic pauses. Do you want to make things comprehensible for your child? Of course not. Strive for a rapid-fire, emotionless huminah-huminah-huminah. Pretend you’re davening in Kovno in 1872.

3. Don’t consider reading an opportunity for interaction.

Do not ask your child questions like, “How would you feel if you were K’tonton?” or “Can you imagine what it would feel like to fall into a vat of sticky, disgusting chopped fish?” or “If you were in the story, what would you do about the giant chopping-knife problem?” Reading to a child is like walking past a rabid dog. Do not engage. Don’t even look at the child while you’re reading to create a connection or ensure that he’s following along. Keep your eyes glued to the text. Read as quickly as you can, as if trying to get through your Torah portion at Temple Beth El in 1989.

4. Choose books that reflect who you want your child to be, not who your child actually is.

Do you remember that New York Times piece about parents not wanting their early elementary-school-age children to read picture books, because they should be reading chapter books? Emulate those parents! God forbid our children cuddle on our laps and find pure pleasure in the interplay of words and images. We are Jews, and we have to push our children or they’ll wind up going to a state school. Picture books are for the goyim. We know life is suffering, and the earlier we instill this lesson by depriving our children of things they enjoy, like picture books, the better.

5. Choose books full of lyrical description.

Plot, schmot. Propulsive narrative, amusing dialogue, and tight sentences are for suckers. What you want is long paragraphs full of descriptions of rocks, or maybe wheat. Try to find books that capture the prose style of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But keep on your toes. Some children actually like poetic nature writing. My older daughter Josie was smitten by Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake books, which are bursting with shimmering carpets of reeds and plumed pampas grass like flowered shawls and great bursts of scarlet Oriental poppies, until frankly I just wanted to pave everything. Josie could happily luxuriate in language until the cows came home, and if Elizabeth Enright were writing about the cows, there would be five paragraphs about their soulful long-lashed eyes and soft fur, or whatever it is cows have. But Josie couldn’t handle interpersonal conflict or scariness in books—even mild tension, even in picture books. My younger daughter, Maxine, had no patience for tumbling vines of nouns and lovely adjectives, but from a very early age she loved suspense. The moral: Pay attention to what your particular children like so you can refrain from giving it to them.

6. Only read books on paper.

All the best sorts of people are bemoaning the prevalence of technology in our lives. Your takeaway: Only books with pages are good. It’s true that in many locales you can check out library books on your iPhone and therefore always have something to read with your child when you’re stuck on the subway or in a pediatrician’s waiting room that contains only one ripped issue of Highlights for Children and a cholera-covered bead maze. And it’s true that sharing an audiobook can be delightful during the drive to Hebrew school or soccer practice. But this is the coward’s way. To acknowledge that books can be enjoyed in digital form is to take one step closer to welcoming our robot overlords. The nuanced perspective would be to say that while many books, including picture books, work better on paper, there are still applications for technology in our lives. But nuance is the kind of thing that leads to people saying you are a self-hating Jew who despises Israel.

7. Never let fathers read to their children.

Our people have struggled far too long under the weight of the stereotype that Jewish men are sedentary, bookish nerds. Fathers must fight this negative image by restricting their interaction with their children to hurling spheres at their heads. If fathers model reading and show pleasure in reading to their children, especially to their sons, it can lead to unholy things like majoring in literature.

There is a very good reason that over 95 percent of elementary-school teachers are women, and that reason is to ensure that boys associate reading with femininity and boringness. It is HaShem’s will.

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Just wrote down call numbers for Mem Fox and Pam Allyn at my local library branch, and will be driving there in a moment WITH A MIGRAINE, because they will make me feel much, much better.  The fact that the Bank Street jewel is only available in the demonic version was a bummer until I noticed I can actually read it on my Mac!  It will be my very first non-paper book, and a testament to your ability to persuade.  
Thanks for the great tips, and for a fun article! Made me giggle, despite my hemicranial hurties.

Ellen Levitt says:

And don’t encourage your kids to read the Voice of the People in the NY Daily News because then they will want to write their own letters to the editor.

Marjorie, if it weren’t for your articles, I would unsubscribe from Tablet.  I live for your articles, and I don’t even have children.  But when I read your articles, I think of my little non-existent Miranda or Hugh, and imagine a happy life together.  Have you written a child-rearing book?  Why not?  Start now!

Eden19567 says:

Wonderfully funny !

Good insights. Especially about kids loving robots. You know what else they love? TV!

ExDC says:

You left out one — NEVER fall asleep while reading to your child.  I’d lie down next to my kids, hold the book above all our heads, and read…and gradually, the book would droop, and the words I was saying wouldn’t match what was on the page, and finally I’d drop the book.  They still laugh about it, but they sure learned to love reading!

Christopher Reiger says:

This is horrible advice!  I’m appalled that Tablet continues to publish the deluded ramblings of a self-hating Jew!  Unsubscribe!

(Tongue-in-cheek)

Thanks for the laughs, Marjorie.

Gone Away Lake!  I remember it from elementary school more than 50 years ago.  Excellent descriptive writing took the reader to the world of the story’s setting.  It was another book I did not want to come to an end. 

jdeange says:

YOUR ARTICLE VERY GOOD, THROUGHLY ENJOYED IT.  I DO HAVE TO WONDER THOUGH WHY YOU WOULD CHOOSE A PICKTURE JOAN CRAWFORD AND DAUGHTER.

DIDN’T THAT VERY DAUGHTER WRITE THE BOOK “MOMMY DEAREST”.  ALL OF THE FAMILY PICTURES WERE STAGED AND JOAN CRAWFORD, BY MOST STANDARDS, A VERY BAD EXAMPLE OF A GOOD MOMMY……………………..

The biggest problem with this piece is that it’s exactly one month out of date — it should have been published on April 1, not May 1  ;-}

Pitanchallah says:

Loved it, loved it, loved it. I will stop reading to my son this evening. In fact, I’m going to stop singing to him as well.
 

Jayson2 says:

If you get the gist of the article, you’d get why Marjorie chose the picture.   

Royq says:

Actually, I like to think of the TV as the third parent.

So here’s the thing — we did everything we were “supposed” to do in order to raise readers. But never anticipated that a pervasive developmental disorder would make reading an agonizing struggle for one of our kids. He is quick to assert that he hates reading. 

HOWEVER…

He did admit during a camp interview last night that he “could read Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing a million times because it’s that amazing.”

Is he the voracious reader I want him to be? No. Do I wish that reading came easier to him? Yes. Do I care that I’ve read about “Pee-tah” and “Fudgie” a gazillion time? 

Nope. And I’ll read it a gazillion more ;)

This was a great post. Perfect for Adar…or anytime!

jcarpenter says:

. . . and being awakened by little ones crawling over you to break out and run giggling from the bedroom (night-time reading and singing) to invariably be caught in the hallway/living room by Mommy:  “You’re supposed to put _them to sleep!”

Lawdy, lady.  I adores it when you are ON A ROLL!  (And what do coat hanger beatings matter when you’re dressed in fabulous matching outfits and reading out loud to your child…)

Jessica Mann Gutteridge says:

This is not only spot on, but also freaking hilarious, but that’s what I would expect from a self-loathing, bookish nerd who hates computers.

No! You did not just write this Marjorie! Tsk. I have kind of the same thing – but not as funny – half written on my computer. Coincidence? Or have I been secretly siphoning your brain waves?

nelewi says:

in the manner of the author counseling people not to do things they in fact should, i would add: never read (or tell) the same stories over. my kids loved rehearing the same stories (and a favorite was isaac singer’s “lyzer the miser” which i have learned enchants adults as well)
– neil a lewis

349Browniemom349 says:

Thanks for the hearty laugh!

Terrific piece.  My husband is in charge of reading to our kids.  It’s his special time with them.   And I’m the writer in the family… and sometimes I want him to read to me (and sometimes he does)!!  Truly, author of LIE.

barbarajaffe says:

this is absolutely hilarious!!!!  books are my life … or as i still say too my daughters:  make a new friend – read a book!!!!

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