As summer 2020 approaches, I’m talking to parents who are (metaphorically) tearing their ever-longer locks out as they try to balance parenting, at-home kids, supervising schoolwork, cancelled activities, and whatever passes for their work these days. It’s a lot to deal with, no question.
Let me offer a solution: reading. For many of us, and certainly for many of my peers and schoolmates, reading was an integral part of summer vacation—and our lives in general. It complemented games, riding bikes, lazy walks along the Brandywine river as something to do and look forward to.
Before I get into that, though, I want to say a couple of words about how we grew up. My sibs and I are the products of benign neglect. Especially in summer, my parents’ obligations ended when we were fed, clothed, safe and informed our ground rules and obligations to the family, such as chores. Other than suggesting things we might read or do and giving us bus fare to go downtown to the library, we were largely on our own. Actually, Mom took us to the library for the first time, introduced us to the librarians, signed us up for our own library cards, and showed us where the children’s books were.
I vividly remember the cool, dark-ish children’s library in the basement of the main building. It had a small door that was just right for kids, but that made parents stoop slightly. Inside, one’s eyes had to adjust to the dimness after the pounding glare of a July day. Inside the rows and rows of books offered seemingly endless possibility, and it was all free. Like David Copperfield remembering the heroes of his reading, those were days when we discovered tales that would fill our imaginations with unforgettable characters and takes us on adventures, or open our eyes to things that interested us. It was completely self-guided, and the only limitation was that we could only take out five books at a time, so choices inevitably had to be made, though there was always next time. The library complemented the hundreds of books my parents had, but nothing compared to the fun of reading dust jackets and trying to decide if we wanted to spend time in these tales. After the initial visits, we rarely went alone, so it was also time to be with peers and share the excitement of discovery, without a watchful adult eye. Well, as long as we abided by the rules of the library.
We had favorite places to read, too. Outside under an ancient elm that had somehow survived the Dutch Elm disease that had torn through Wilmington, the shade was always welcome. If it rained, we sat on the porch and the plink of the drops on the windows enhanced the cozy quiet.
Perhaps such memories aren’t useful to you, but the fact that they have endured for decades should be an indication of how formative and important those experiences were, at least for my friends, siblings, and me.
There are also clear benefits to summer reading that will impact many other areas of endeavor. Many parents ask how to get their kids to read in the summer. Well, the best way is to encourage reading all year long, and for you to model that as well. The primary advantage of summer reading, though, is that it is self-directed, that when so much reading is assigned, kids can choose what they read.
I’ve also talked to parents who say that their kids like to read magazines, and they figure that as long as they’re reading that’s good. It is, but there are advantages to reading books that no magazine can provide.
First, reading fosters the imagination. The ability to see something in the mind’s eye is imperative, as most projects begin in the imagination. Images, scenes, characters that come to life on the page foster that imaginative capability. In the 19th Century before there were films or TV, writers used language to create atmosphere and visuals. Language is the beginning of creativity. Enhancing linguistic facility promotes greater vocabularies, greater thinking and more effective communications.
While magazines are great, the advantage of books is that, with few exceptions, the reader has to retain information over time. Whether it’s the progress of a character, the development of a thesis, or a series of facts and analyses, the ability to grasp scope and sophistication of subject matters—or entertainments—is a valuable skill. In a world of Twitter and texts, there is a tendency to avoid depth or complexity. In any serious pursuits, that is virtually impossible. The ability to hold multiple ideas, theories and expressions in the mind is essential for the development of critical thinking.
Vicarious experiences count, too. Well-crafted stories provide the reader with an emotional experience analogous to a real experience. When one is having an emotional response, the limbic system doesn’t recognize whether that has inspired by real world situations, or stimulus from the imagination. Why do you think love stories (and especially YA books) are so popular? They provide a real response to imaginary situations.
For kids, these vicarious experiences can be highly empowering. Much of children’s literature, from Harry Potter to Narnia, to Huckleberry Finn removes the parental protection and forces the young characters to fend for—and excel—on their own. These vicarious experiences are in some ways real and prepare young people for the world outside the pages.
These are just a few reasons why reading is so important. At this time of year, I probably get 20 press releases a week about products that will help parents avoid “summer brain drain” for their kids. For the most part, these are needlessly alarmist. Yet, rather than retaining math formulas, perhaps consider developing the imagination and the kid through reading. It’s fun and inspiring, and provides quiet, private time for kids, something they need as well, even as it sets up a lifetime of relationships and remembrances. (You can catch up on the math in the fall. I promise you.)
One, I think, funny coda. WordPress thinks my sentences are too long and complicated, that I should simplify the thoughts. Guess they didn’t spend a lot of summertime with books.