Reading is a crucial skill for children to learn in elementary school and remains essential for teenagers. Picking up a book is a form of stress relief and self-care. Reading makes people happier and helps individuals develop more patience, energy, and resilience.
But how can parents help their teens enjoy these benefits if they don’t like to read?
Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, and Maria Russo, the newspaper’s children’s books editor, have a few meaningful suggestions. Russo and Paul’s book, How to Raise a Reader, is a primer for coaxing even the most reluctant readers into beginning — or continuing — this feel-good habit. It even includes an entire chapter on teenagers.
In her latest Q&A, Allison Gilbert, author and senior writer for the Center of Parent and Teen Communication, talks with Paul about the most essential takeaways for parents of adolescents. As the mother of three children (ages 10, 12, and 14) Paul knows this terrain from a personal vantage point as well.
Allison Gilbert: You say choosing the right book can stir even the most unenthusiastic reader. But how can any book today compete with all the pulls on an adolescent’s time?
Pamela Paul: Teens are figuring out their identity and place in the world. Their emotions tend to run high. Because of these realities, YA [young adult] literature is really good at making them feel at home and for discovering characters within the pages that are like them. Teens who read YA can often see their emotions reflected back at them and that tends to make any uncomfortable feelings easier to acknowledge — easier because they’re happening to someone else.
AG: How does screen time come into play?
PP: Today’s teens live in a time-compressed period. They have more extracurricular activities and more choices for how to use their leisure time. They can stream TV shows, they can be on social media, and they can play video games. Reading can get pushed out of their lives. In some ways, parents need to reintroduce reading to their teens. And yet, when parents push, their efforts may backfire. Teens may decide they don’t want to read at all. Reading should never be a punishment. It should be viewed as a reward.
AG: Should all subjects be fair game? Meaning, if a teen wants to read a book with explicit content, is that OK?
PP: Well, there’s never a simple way to answer that. Every teen is different and each family faces unique circumstances that make some material fine and other subjects uncomfortable if not inappropriate. Books are generally crafted by professionals, though, and they know what’s appropriate for teen readers. You have to consider where else your child is going to glean information – the vast unedited expanse of the Internet? Their friends?
AG: What advice do you give parents who still have — no matter what they try — an unwilling reader at home?
PP: If your teen isn’t an enthusiastic reader, I suggest seeking unexpected sources of appealing, age-appropriate books. For example, stores like Urban Outfitters tend to have titles that appeal to teen readers. Going to garage sales can be fun. I also think picking through books at Goodwill can be an adventure.
AG: Do you think parents can serve as reading role models?
PP: Yes! If a parent reads, that’s much more helpful than a parent insisting her child explore a novel while she’s on her phone. Teens are figuring out what its means to be a grown-up and they can learn that reading is a form of relaxation, escapism, and self-care.
AG: Is reading important for long-term well-being?
PP: Absolutely. Reading is purely “you” time. It’s fulfilling, enriching, and one of the best activities you can do for yourself. Books feed your brain. They feed your heart and soul. Like meditation, reading is 100% a personal and totally immersive activity.
AG Note: Below are a few of the many books Paul and Russo suggest for teenagers. There are many more recommendations to be found in their book.