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What You Should Really Do If You Want Your Kids to Read This Summer

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KATIE HURLEY
Katie Hurley

Reading is always a hot topic during the summer months. Friends exchange favorites and make recommendations while debating the latest titles on the "best sellers" list (I really need to get to The Goldfinch) and, just about everywhere you go, you see people taking a moment to check out with a new adventure in literature. That's the picture perfect version of summer reading, anyway.

The dark side of the summer reading craze that happens year after year involves worried parents of children having far too much fun to stop and read. You hear the chatter during swimming lessons. You hear it at the beach. You even hear it during moms' night out.

"I can't get him to read."

"He's falling behind."

"His teacher said he needs to read 20 minutes every day but he doesn't even read 20 minutes every week!"

Yes, the black rain cloud that is the "summer slide" rears its head early in the summer and appears to grow in size as one long, fun-filled day bleeds into the next. What initially feels like that thing that will get done at some point quickly becomes a source of panic and frustration (bad combination) for worried parents everywhere because the school year will begin, whether or not the kids remember how to read.

This menacing black cloud sends well-meaning parents into a tizzy the moment it arrives. Parents enforce forced reading periods, remove all fun until the reading is done, overspend on workbooks, spend hours on the Internet trying to find ways to make reading "fun," beg, bribe, and yell. Parents do everything they can to get that 20 minutes in because, let's face it, when a kid returns from the summer having lost all skills learned during the previous year, the teacher makes direct eye with the parent first.

As it turns out, the pressure to succeed and read at the appropriate level is as much a parent problem as it is a child problem, and that's a shame... because reading is fun (with or without accompanying crafts found on Pinterest at 2 a.m..)

A mom can't even hop on Facebook for a few minutes at the end of the day without confronting the so-called summer slide these days. Article after article tells parents what they need to do (and what they are probably doing wrong) to make the summer reading thing a smashing success... and that only adds to the pressure. Flash cards? No, thank you. No one in this house likes those (OK, maybe I do, but I already know how to read.)

The truth is that you can't force your kids to read. Or you can, if you want to raise kids who hate reading and avoid it at all costs. But you can inspire a love of reading. You can leave the parenting rat race behind and stop worrying about the black cloud, the summer slide, and the potential look on the teacher's face this September and just read for fun.

Stop freaking out. Stress is contagious and your stress quickly becomes your child's stress. So your kid isn't reading as much as usual, is that really the end of the world? No. Maybe he's learning new things. Maybe he's (gasp!) playing outside all day every day and having fun with friends. Maybe he's more focused on art and nature.

Stop freaking out. Read together when you can. Children are never too old to have parents read to them, and reading together inspires a love of finding adventure within the pages of the book.

Ditch the levels. For better or for worse, books grouped according to reading level are the new best things. Unless they aren't. Reading levels make a lot of sense in the classroom, but at home... kids should be encouraged to read what makes them happy.

So what if your kid consistently chooses pictures book when she should be reading Level 3 books? Is she reading? Is she smiling? Is she telling you about the latest and greatest adventure? That's all that matters.

Keep reading picture books. I know that it seems like once your child can read independently, it's time to let go of the beautifully illustrated stories that you read over and over again during kindergarten, but that's not true. Think about how you feel when you read a really great book. Reading brings us comfort. Reading brings us happiness. Reading provides an escape from the inevitable stressors that life has to offer.

My kids are both reading and they love to choose books to read to the family. My son loves books about trucks and racing while my daughter loves books about fairies and art. But during times of stress, they always come to me with their old favorites and snuggle in for some familiar adventures. I hope we never outgrow our favorite character, "Livi," who brings us great laughter and restores our souls. If you haven't checked out On My Way to School (or the other Livi books) by Sarah Maizes, you should. She makes reading fun every day of the week.

Let them play. Yes, reading is important and you should continue to read out loud, read around a campfire (real or fake - I don't camp but I do read around a fake campfire often), and read side-by-side on the beach, on the couch, or on the floor. Yes, go ahead and do all of those things, but first...let them play.

Kids who have time for unstructured play experience less stress than those who don't. This means that tackling the hard stuff, like reading or other areas of academics, feels a bit more doable. They have the confidence and problem solving skills to work through the struggles along the way. So please, I'm begging you (and will even give you a lollipop if you listen -- you totally take bribes, right?), put away the workbooks, tear up the overwhelming reading lists and stop stressing about that summer reading program at the library and let your kids play.

Kids learn and develop at their own pace. Forcing them into seclusion in the name of struggling through a book won't make your child learn to read any faster, but creating a loving, stress-free environment full of free play and unconditional support just might.