How to Raise a Reader with Erinn Hayes

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Erinn Hayes (Children’s Hospital, Medical Police) shares how reinforcing reading (and minimizing screen time) changed her family for the better. “Kids love a good story. So, it’s then our responsibility to nurture that, to encourage it, and to foster a love and a reverence for a good book and the quiet solitude it provides.”


[00:44] Hi, my name is Erinn Hayes, and this is Good Kids: How Not to Raise an Asshole. 


[00:51] Really, most of the time when you walk into our house, our girls — ages 10 and 12 — will be sitting on the couch reading a book. And it’s truly their favorite pastime and borders on like obsession, which has been such a gift because they can always entertain themselves. But I have had numerous people ask me over the years how we managed to make them love reading so much. And kind of like, unlike other skills that I am willing to take all the credit for — like, you know, I put in time teaching them how to ride a bike. I gave a speech that was like Mighty Ducks-worthy of, like, you can go home and know how to ride a bike, but you got to put the time in. It’s gonna feel so good, but you got to ABP: Always Be Pedaling. But I am reluctant to take all the credit for teaching them how to read because early on, Maggie, our oldest, was interested in books from day one.


[01:39] I mean, as soon as she realized she was a separate human being from me and it wasn’t all about boobs. She was the kid who actually sat and listened, and she focused on the pages, and the story, and she didn’t throw the book on the floor and squirm out of our arms like a second child would later do. You know, she was the kid who you didn’t even know was in the room until a stack of books was dropped on your lap. And these like enormous, gorgeous pleading eyes were boring into your soul, like, read to me. So I have endless memories of just like falling asleep reading books to her, wake myself up with the gibberish, trying to keep barreling through the book. So in that way, the credit is really all on her.


[02:20] But that said, I think a lot of kids are like that. Like, I think a lot of kids love a good story. Kids love a good story. So it’s then our responsibility to nurture that and to encourage it, you know, to foster a love and a reverence for a good book and the quiet solitude it provides. You know, we did make some critical choices during those early years, and sadly — and in my like always-annoying opinion to my friends — I think that it goes hand-in-hand with electronics. And it starts really young, you know, because having kids is hard, you know, we all know that. No one would be listening to any parenting podcast if it was easy. We commiserate because there is so much to commiserate about, especially in the first year before kids start preschool or kindergarten. It’s like this relentless onslaught of adorable tyranny. 


[03:10] And it’s just every moment, right? And finding a moment to yourself is like this Herculean task. So it’s understandable that like during a drive, or in a car, in the cart at the grocery store, in the waiting room, or at lunch with a friend, or like whatever activity, handing them a device and giving them your phone or a tablet provides you with a moment to breathe. You know, you can focus, you can get something done. 


[03:37] But I guess, like, what if you didn’t? You know, what if you saved the electronics for really important times, like airplane trips, you know, when all family bets should be off and just give the kids whatever they goddamn want. All bets are off on an airplane. But when it’s not an airplane, like, make it special. It’s a little harder and it sucks in certain moments to not, like, give in to the promise of a few moments of quiet that watching a show in the car would bring you. But I mean, the good news is — and the good news and the sad news is — that these years pass. 


[04:13] You know, they will — if you stick to it and you’ll eventually like we do have to put a, “no, you don’t get to bring a book in the car on the way to school because I want someone to talk to me.” That happens if you put the work in when your kids are young. It is my belief that in order to not raise an asshole, sometimes you have to be the asshole. Like, be in charge. And really, truly, the car is like the greatest place to start. In the car, they are trapped and they have to listen to you and you know — or they have to talk to you. And now we kind of — we talk about crushes and I try to get them to admit that they have one. They still have yet to do that. You know, we work out difficult social interactions, or I actually just shut up and listen to them. But in those early years, like we sang songs. And we talked about letters like on the way to the park, we would say, “look, what letters do you see in a sign? That’s an S. What sound does S make? What other words start with S?” And you just start like those kind of conversations.


[05:18] And what I’ve realized lately, I guess now that my kids are more self-sufficient, that it’s really easy to assume that as kids go into school that they’re being taught everything that they need. You know, that that assumption can start really early, that they’ll learn to read and that they practice all the reading at school, and sure will do a little bit. But I do think like at that early age, that’s the most important time to just reinforce it, reinforce it, reinforce it, because that’s when you can get them hooked. It’s a lot easier to get them hooked at this early age when you make reading not an activity that’s associated with schoolwork. That was what kind of clicked, I think, for my kids because it became a leisure activity. You know, it became this fun thing that we were doing together as a family when I would be making dinner. And then we have sticky notes all over the cupboards with two-letter words, and then it got to be three-letter words. And then it was words with difficult vowel sounds. And you would celebrate it when they were moving on to harder words, or we’d see how fast they could read all the words on the cupboard, you know, while you’re making some rice. Like you can go and make an afternoon of going to the library and picking out the perfect first chapter book, you know. With our kids making a big deal and getting really excited for them with each reading milestone, it just it seemed to work. Librarians are incredible, and it’s free. Like you don’t have to keep up with the technology. Like this is the cheaper option is to just get them engaged with books. 


[06:47] I do believe there is a book for every child that will get them hooked. If it’s a graphic novel, if it’s just like a very simple chapter book, if it’s an adventure book. If it’s half graphic novel and half written word — like, there’s something that is going to get them get them engaged. 


[08:21] I think raising a reader is important because it’s going to help that child in every other aspect of their life. They’re going to know about worlds they couldn’t possibly know about, areas they couldn’t possibly know about. They’re going to be great spellers. They’re going to have a grasp on grammar. It’s going to help them in their schooling all throughout. And then in life just because they’ll know more. But getting back to the electronics, we did do a lot of that when they were younger. You know, like we watched a lot of Sesame Street when I was barely had my eyes open and we hadn’t worked out the rules. And we couldn’t we hadn’t figured out when it was OK to watch things and when it wasn’t. And so we said yes sometimes. And then we said no other times. And we quickly realized that for our kids, like without strict rules, they just became total little tyrants.


[09:09] I mean, I think at one point it got so bad in our house that my husband said he was going to rip the TV off the wall and throw it out the window, and I am pretty sure he meant it. And he is a very nice man. But I get it. I get why they whine and I get why they complain. They live in a world where they don’t make the rules. And they never know what they’re gonna be allowed to do if you aren’t clear with the message. Like if we aren’t consistent day-to-day with what we allow and what we don’t allow, then why should we expect them to be consistent with their behavior? Like how dare we talk about fairness when they are just completely subject to our whimsy, you know? How are they supposed to know that we’re in the mood to have like a sweet family night with no TV when last night they got to watch TV? And so maybe if they scream and they yell, they’ll get to watch something. So we realize that for our family screens during the week equaled total turdville behavior at home, so we made the resolution that Friday through Sunday — like, you can watch movies like 1 or 2 on the weekends. It sucked for them for like a week, you know, or until they realized that we meant it. The trick that works for me is be firm, be honest, make a joke, change the subject. Like we try to be honest with them about why we’re taking things away with like a really simple like, “well, I learned it’s not right for your brain development. And I care, I care so much about your development. It is harmful to me and I care about me. And it is like this — I guess this is my burden. And what do you want for dinner tonight?” 

[10:35] Like, just done, quick, move on. Obviously, this doesn’t have to last forever. And sometimes you bend the rules — every once in a blue moon we’ll be like, “we’re doing something crazy today! It’s Wednesday and we’re going to watch TV!” You know, like, “oh my god!” Like, bend the rules sometimes, but have rules and mostly stick to the rules.


[10:58] Look, I love television and I love movies, but I know how produce they are working in this industry and I know that it’s all, you know, market-tested and how can we get kids — and a book truly is a gateway to another world that you can be part of creating. And then once you feel like they’re old enough, and they’re mature enough to handle a bit of it, then hen start peppering it back in. You know, I mean, I’m talking like years, not months. It’s not like, “we did two weeks! We can start adding it back in!” I don’t think that’s going to work. And then like if screen time is just something they get and you’ve have this time limit, then it needn’t be contingent on other things. Like I’m really wary about people who, especially reading, will say, if you read for 20 minutes, then you get to go do your video game. Because what that makes it sound is like the reading part is the punishment to get to the reward that is the screen time. Like make reading just another activity that we do. It’s just like it is downtime. Read a book yourself. Sit next to them and read a book. Like emphasize the positiveness of, like, when you’re having fun with your family, like, “isn’t this so nice? I’m having a great time with you guys.”

[12:20] I think anything that gets them to think a bit more critically about behaviors with these devices will, I’m hoping, give them a little perspective in the long run. They may not realize what the problem is, that they just jump in and become part of it. I want them to notice the difference. And I’m willing to be an asshole to get that. You know, our daughter is going to be disappointed with her first phone. Like, we’re not getting her flip phone. We’re not that mean. But we’re also not gonna put the Internet in her hand at 12 years old just because all of her friends have it. Like right now the plan is to make her write a paper about the links between social media — which like, sidebar, my kids aren’t getting until 16 — and the rise in teenage depression and what her thoughts are on that. So, I mean, I guess like closing thought is if you’re feeling harsh, limiting your kids screen time, you can always hold that story up and say, like kids, you got it lucky because at least not making you write a goddamn paper. 


[13:19] OK, so the fun thing is, is that my children, Maggie and Lilah, were here listening. Maggie, say hi. 


[13:24] Maggie Hayes: Hi. 


[13:25] Erinn Hayes: Lilah. 


[13:26] Lilah Hayes: Hi. 


[13:27] Erinn Hayes: Hi, guys. So what are your general thoughts? Like, did you disagree with anything I said? Is there anything that you agreed with? 


[13:34] Maggie Hayes: I think that it’s a really good idea to definitely make sure that you separate reading from my something you do before reading from electronics. Because like if you’re looking for something to like for your kid to do while you hold out on electronics, like, I don’t know, make them do something that you don’t need them to like. Say like if you clean your room, then you can do this. Like they’re already not going to want to clean their room. If you just wait for schools to assign reading, then nobody likes to do homework. 


[14:10] Lilah Hayes: So they’re gonna associate it with, like, you have to do this or else you’ll get a bad grade or something. 


[14:16] Maggie Hayes: It’s homework instead of like fun. 


[14:20] Lilah Hayes: Also, I feel like if your child doesn’t really — already doesn’t really like reading, and they’re like kind of a little bit older, you should start off reading by associating it with something that they like. Like, if they really like to play baseball, you should start off by getting them a few books about baseball. 


[14:43] Erinn Hayes: That’s a great idea. 

[14:44] Maggie Hayes: Yeah, I do remember going to the library, and the librarians are super helpful. Like, you can just tell them even just what you like to do, or if you’ve read before, like, what you like to read about, and they’ll find a bunch of books that you’re most likely going to really like. 


[15:10] Erinn Hayes: If you like comedy, half-hour comedy programs that involve things like action and jokes, you can watch Medical Police on Netflix starring myself and Rob Heubel. And it is a spinoff of Children’s Hospital that we did for seven years. And it is a raucous good time. 


[15:30] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.


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