I know I’ve mulled over the idea of summer reading before – and recently the issue of reading has cropped up again in a different guise in the New York Times – but as we enter the last days of summer the girls are going through the dreaded ritual of fighting us over the last of the summer reading and homework. You know the drill: the bargaining to do X number of pages before lunch so they can spend the afternoon with friends, to read Y chapters after dinner. And when the goals go unmet, and the unfinished work compounds, there’s the renegotiation, and the yelling, the promising, the anxiety, the tears that it’s impossible, that it’s stupid…
And you know what? It is stupid.
I have been fighting this internally for a good deal of time, trying to balance what I know is right with wanting to be a good upstanding parent, and it’s been a disaster. Forcing kids to read is wrong, forcing them to read from lists is doubly wrong, and forcing them to read over the summer is wrong times a brazillion.
The ideal is to be fighting kids to put books down so they go outside to play. Kids should be calling each other up when they finish a book they love and trading them with each other like… whatever kids trade these days. They should be begging us for book suggestions, and we should be able to supply them with titles to check out from the library, if not from our own shelves.
That this isn’t the way things are is a colossal failure both of our education system and our jobs as parents.
If schools didn’t kill the joy of reading from kids they would still want to read with the same excitement they had when they first learned how to read. Reading doesn’t one day become uncool, adults MAKE it uncool. They take something fun and make it work. They use books designed specifically for classrooms that kill the joy of reading. These neutron bombs of the written word kill the brain but leave the shell of the child alive and teach them to hate reading. Then they turn around and say “Now THIS is an excellent work of fiction, and if you do not agree then you don’t know what’s good for you.” In essence, further destroying any remaining joy in the process.
Parents fail kids by condoning this activity, by failing to model reading, and by showing a disdain for the books that do interest their children. Many parents don’t know what their children are reading if it isn’t on the news or featured in a magazine article, and few could name a book that won a Newbery or Caldecott medal (or can even tell the difference between the awards). Then because the school says children must do their summer reading, and sends home a big list of books to choose from or in some cases assigns specific books, we parents march dutifully in step and break out the whip to make sure it gets done.
We fool ourselves into believing that it keeps their minds active to do so, and that reading is important, but it’s lip service and kids know it. They know it and they lose respect for us because for once they can see that we aren’t truly serving as their advocates. That’s why they fight it.
I say this now, knowing I’m only half the parental unit in this household and that I’m likely to wimp out: I will no longer support, encourage, or insist that summer reading be done as per the dictates of the schools. Our girls read just as many – if not more – books on their own then the number required, year round, and I am no longer interested in attempts to kill their joy of reading.
Likewise with summer homework. Studies about the efficacy of summer homework are still being debated and anecdotally I can see that it does more harm than good. It sends my older daughter into fits of hysterics that she cannot do it, that it’s frustrating, and she walks around saying she hates math as a result. This is exactly how we kill kids off math and science and anything else we force them to do without providing them an internal incentive. It doesn’t accomplish anything to have a child do any sort of educational work in a state of duress, and any advantages claimed by the pro-homework crowd are completely obliterated by the anxiety produced.
Last I checked, a child could not be failed or kept from social promotion in the schools for failure to do extracurricular activities which, technically, these are. Extracurricular. As in outside the curriculum.
I think I am prepared to go case by case, year by year, teacher by teacher to fight this. Schools, if you cannot accomplish your stated educational goals within the confines of a school year, you are not permitted to extend your failure into my child’s summer vacation. You either extend the school year or admit that your educational practices are failures if they cannot be retained or refreshed after a short break.
Furthermore, you may request that my children keep reading over the summer for their own pleasure, but you must honor and accept the books they choose to read. What you have them read inside your classrooms I leave to you, but outside is no longer any of your business.
It’s taken me all summer to work this out but I now have nine months to prepare myself to execute it. Maybe I’ll see if I can get anyone else to go along with me.