Remember bringing home your math book for the first time? Everything was new, there were symbols and fractions and apples being added up and subtracted. It was fun. Most kids start out thinking school is awesome. Some keep that enthusiasm, but a lot of kids lose it, and for those little guys, school is a drag.
But what happens to that early enthusiasm?
Self-motivated learners start off at the top of the class and end up at the top of every org chart, book list, and scientific breakthrough. Encouraging enthusiasm for school from the very start is one of the best things we can possibly do for kids, and after living through school for twenty years, and then observing the system for another twenty, I think I have something to say. Voice of experience, dude.
First off, isn't there a way we can stop using math and reading as punishment? This is something I never understood, and will never understand, about the school system. So teachers are assigning extra chapters for homework because we were too loud in line. We have to do a page of math problems during recess because we couldn't stop laughing at "Titicaca" in Geography lesson. The message kids get is "you were brats, so now you all have to read." Great. Who would think of using homework as punishment? And then we wonder why kids aren't enthusiastic about homework.
I desperately encourage all parents to hear what you are saying when you talk. At home, never suggest that learning is a bad activity, even indirectly. Avoid labeling your little reader as "less than" other kids, for example don't compare your bookish, quiet ones negatively to more athletic siblings or friends. If they love their math book, avoid calling math "geeky," or express the idea -- however lovingly -- that you think he's a nerd or a pansy. Sure, you want them to know they're doing great, so by all means encourage, but without the labeling. You might think it's adorable that you have a little "Poindexter" on your hands, but what do you think happens when you say that? Don't forget that these images of our pop culture brainy types are never the ones idolized by kids, and don't forget what it's like in grade school. For all our efforts to curb bullying, kids are kids, and "nerds" have been schoolyard targets since time began. When you speak in terms of those labels, kids are quick to self-apply, and they don't need that from you when there will be enough outside influences to douse that early enthusiasm for learning. Encouragement, but no labeling. Trust me, it stings, and it lasts.
Avoid suggesting breaks from books in isolating terms, for example try not to say that they "should be" doing something else, like playing football. If reading is what they want to do, then what you're saying causes a feeling like shame. Congratulations, you're the first person to tell your little girl that she's weird. Of course they can't stay inside and read all the time, but if your kid seems to really take to math or books, just let them, and choose your words when you offer other activities. For example, if your nine year old has just gone into his room to read and it's a nice day, instead of offering so quickly that he "should be playing outside," what's wrong with telling him he can read awhile until it's time to go play outside, and include a promise that he can read more later? Or read outside? This shows that you hold books in as high regard as sports.Which you should. Higher, actually, if I'm honest.
Lastly, I'm sorry your kid has to read Johnny Tremain at camp instead of playing his video games, but please don't be that parent writing an angry email to the teacher for assigning summer reading. Have you seen these stories in the news? It happens all the time. I read one letter online from a mom who was so angry, demanding to know what that kid did so bad that he is being forced to read books over summer vacation. Talk about missing the whole point.
Think of every little kid you know. They all start out loving books. They want you to read to them because books are a joy. Then they learn to read for themselves -- don't you want them conditioned to keep on regarding books as a joyful pursuit? Why the animosity over summer reading? We need vacations from work, not from joyful pursuits. Set the right example and encourage summer reading.
In fact, why don't you all sit down with your kids and make a book list when school's over, even if the teacher didn't assign any reading. Talk about books, talk about math, don't limit learning to something that happens only in school from September to July. Because life doesn't work that way, and life is all about perpetual learning. Isn't it?
Have a great summer. And please read something.