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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

Marjorie Ingall
May 01, 2012

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.

8. Never read anything that rhymes.

Why do schools keep banning Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss? (Yertle the Turtle, with its message of seditious politics, caused a teacher in British Columbia to be disciplined just last week.) I’ll tell you why. Because you can hide all sorts of un-American thoughts and ideas in verse. Yes, research shows that rhymes can engage children, teach them about the structure of language, increase involvement with the text (for instance, when you stop reading before the end of a line and let them guess how it’s going to end). Yadda yadda yadda. I will merely point out that Hitler wrote poetry. (I would prove it to you, but then I’d have to link to a neo-Nazi site. I win.)

9. Finish every book, even if kills you. Or your kid.

Let’s say you made a bad choice. You hate the book; the kid hates the book; it’s scary or boring. If you quit, you will teach your child that your home is a safe place and reading is not a punishment. You might as well buy them the rock cocaine and light it.

10. Read only Newbery- and Caldecott-winning books.

Literary experts are never wrong, and books never become dated. I have forced my children to memorize the 1927 winner, Smoky the Cowhorse.

11. Don’t do any research.

You wouldn’t want to get The Best Books To Read Aloud With Children of All Ages, by the Children’s Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education (which is only $2.99 in demonic electronic form) or Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, by Mem Fox (author of multiple classic children’s books including Time for Bed, which, if you woke me up at 4 a.m., I could instantly recite in its entirety) or LitWorld founder Pam Allyn’s What To Read When. You wouldn’t want to pre-read a book to see if it’s right for your kid. You certainly wouldn’t care about the Jewish perspective on reading to your children. You wouldn’t want my friend Joanna Brichetto’s advice on Jew-ifying secular books by talking about bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) while reading Little Red Riding Hood or discussing selichot (forgiveness) while reading David Shannon’s No, David! You wouldn’t want to go through the list of Sydney Taylor Award winners to see which ones might make good read-alouds for your family. And you’d never read the list of books in the slideshow attached to this article, which mentions some of my favorite Jewish read-alouds for every age group.

Go make your child do some standardized-test prep, already.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.