Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Turning Children On to Reading

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Updated Nov 15, 2011

I love to read.  As a young boy, I can remember devouring Ellery Queen mysteries on long vacation drives; taking a hot bath and reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder; curling up in the bay window of a local library, as cascades of rain dripped down the glass, with a harrowing tale of Blackbeard the Pirate.  I still have the copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, worn from countless readings, given to me on my 12th birthday by my grandmother.  To this moment, the perfect day is one with a sky full of dark and heavy clouds, promising a furious storm or inches of snow, with a fire in the fireplace and a book waiting to be devoured by my side.

My wife was an elementary education major in college, and chose to homeschool each of our four children through to the eighth grade.  While we partnered on this, my part was, to say the least, secondary.  My wife guided each of our four children to an education that served them admirably throughout high school and college, and the heart of her curriculum was always reading.  Homeschooling is a challenging and arduous task.  When nothing went as planned, math assignments left uncompleted, science projects remained undone, Susan would wearily collapse into a chair at the end of the day and say, “Well, at least they read.  If I can just get them to read, everything else will fall into place.”  And she was right.  It would, and it did. 

Most parents want their kids to read, so I won’t spend time making the case for it here.

But most kids don’t read.  And most parents don’t seem to know how to get them to read.

Here’s how.

1.         Create the Time to Read

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average child between the ages of 8-18 “now spends practically every waking minute – except for the time in school – using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device.”  In fact, they spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices.   That doesn’t count the 1.5 hours spent texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cell phones.  And because they multi-task, such as surfing the net while listening to their iPod, they manage to cram in nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.

When, exactly, do we expect them to pick up a book or power on a Kindle?

I once heard Jim Collins, known best as the author of business titles, comment that we do not need to make more “to do” lists, but rather a few “stop doing” lists.  I know that in my life, the great opposition to reading is what I allow to fill my time instead of reading.  To say we have no time to read is not really true; we have simply chosen to use our time for other things, or have allowed our time to be filled to the exclusion of reading.

2.         Model Reading for Your Children

One of the great gifts my mother gave to me was a love of reading.  She could talk about a book as if it was something good to eat.  After describing one of the storms Laura faced in The Long Winter, or the windswept moors of Wuthering Heights, I had to go and read the book.  I could actually be disciplined with the threat of “no library” for a week. 

My kids grew up surrounded by books, and parents reading them.  It was modeled for them as much as anything else in our life, perhaps more than most other things.

Your children will ask you what you are reading – don’t simply tell them the title, but sell the story to them.

They may even ask you to read a bit of it out loud to them. 

Do it.

3.         Pick Books That Are Fun to Read

Some parents feel that they need to inflict Tolstoy or Joyce on their children.  Not us.  We certainly encouraged the classics, and our children read their fair share, but we were more concerned – particularly early on – with creating a love for reading.  In a recent article for CNN, the author James Patterson makes a similar case.  He argues for a parent’s role in helping their child find books they will like to read. 

So I’ve eagerly served up the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, Conn Iggulden, C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.K. Rowling, Madeline L’Engle,  Francine Rivers, Roald Dahl, C.J. Sansom, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Cornelia Funke, Harper Lee, Jules Verne, P.D. James, Vardis Fisher, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so many, many more.  

To this day, even my adult children will ask me to pick out another round of books for them, and I still do it with an eye to what I know they will enjoy.  We share good books we’ve read between the six of us like others share good movies or restaurants.

The three steps are simple, but they matter.

Several years ago my family and I traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  There for a week, our pattern was to go to the parks early in the morning, come back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon break, and then go back out for the evening.  One day, during one of the afternoons back at the hotel, we were sitting in the atrium around a table doing what came naturally to us as a family. 

We were reading. 

My oldest daughter was tearing through the latest installment of Harry Potter in order to pass it on to her siblings; my other daughter was soldiering her way through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; my oldest son was reading – again – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings; and my youngest son was laughing uproariously over some unfortunate event conceived by Lemony Snicket. 

I had my own stack of books beside me, as if they were a mound of pastries that I couldn’t yet decide which to eat first.  A history by David McCullough, I believe, finally won.  My wife, bless her soul, was actually reading one of her husband’s books.

Martyrs still exist.

A woman walked over to our table, openly marveling at seeing six people – and particularly four children - reading.  She said it was a wonderful sight, and wondered how we did it.  I remember thinking that we didn’t do anything – we genuinely enjoyed reading.  But there was something that caused my children to love a book. 

It started by doing what my mother did – talking about books like they were truly a pleasure. 

Then, throughout their life, modeling a life that read. 

But then another thought entered my mind.  What led us to read that day?  The same thing that had led us to read a thousand days before.  On that day, upon returning to the hotel room, the TV went on just like it would in your family.  But then Susan and I instinctively said to our kids, “Why don’t you get a book and read instead?  Come on, let’s go out together and sit by a table and read.”

So we did. 

James Emery White


Parts of this were adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press), which talks a great deal more about the importance of reading.  See also the chapter on the mind in Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

“How to get your kid to be a fanatic reader,” James Patterson, Special to CNN, September 28, 2011. Read online.

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