I am a reader. Walking into any bookstore or the local library physically changes me. I am instantly intoxicated, overcome by the smell…the feel… the sight of all those gorgeous books just waiting to be swallowed up. My idea of a perfect vacation day is curling up on the sofa or sitting on the beach with a good book and reading, uninterrupted, for several hours, transported to far away lands and into the challenges of other people’s lives. I am also a writer and a psychologist, so I suppose it seems as I should be a champion of summer reading for children; but I’m not. I’m not because the biggest, the most important part of me, the part I am trying desperately to hold on to, the fun loving mother part, hates it.
I quit. I don’t want to do it anymore. For ten long months I have been the homework police, demanding my children sit at the table and finish their schoolwork when they would rather be outside with their friends. I worked hard to get them through the mountainous amounts of school projects and studying and I am tired of it. I need a break; they need a break. I don’t want to be the whip cracker anymore. I want to throw my hands up in the air and dash out the door yelling, “Last one in the pool is a rotten egg!”
This year my children finished school on June 25th and they will return to school on August 27th. That gives us only eight short weeks to shake it all off and have some fun.
Eight short weeks to let loose and swing from trees into the deep waters of the lake, run through cold sprinklers and hunt for skittery crabs at the beach.
Eight weeks to learn how to use a jackknife, put a worm on a hook, and build a fort out of broken branches.
Eight weeks to take meandering bike rides, have lemonade stands and chase the ice cream man.
Eight weeks to have a neighborhood game of flashlight tag, go night swimming among the fireflies, toast marshmallows and finally fall down on the bed, or the couch, or the floor nestled next to siblings, cousins and friends, happy and exhausted.
Eight short weeks to allow minds to open up and let imaginations soar as beaches are combed and woods are explored.
And eight short weeks to finish summer reading. Blah.
This short summer our school district has dictated that my middle school children are to read three books. Three books in eight weeks! I know adults—successful, happy, seemingly normal adults—who don’t read that many books in a year. I just spent the weekend with a tween girl who lives near us, in a town with a very well-respected school system and she is required to read one book this summer. One book. When my children told her they were reading three books she frowned. “Too much pressure,” she said. Smart girl.
Now, I know there are many children who, like me, love to read and these children will complete this three-book assignment quickly. To them, time spent with a book is relaxing and even fun. These children will choose to use their downtime sitting on the porch swing, book in hand, reading away. But, there are also many children who do not embrace reading, or who struggle with it, and for them, summer reading is a chore, or worse, a punishment.
I have five children, some are readers and some are not. I didn’t raise them any differently, reading more to one than the other, it’s just how they are wired; one of my children will choose to read as often as he can, while another would rather not read anything beyond the back of a cereal box or a sports magazine. Asking this child to sit and read a novel on a sunny summer when he could be out playing Wiffle ball with his buddies is akin to torture.
I am not even certain of the point behind summer reading. Are these mandated books incorporated into the school curriculum come September? Rarely. Does the school believe that my preteen children will forget how to read in only eight weeks? Seems unlikely. Does the school think that mandatory reading will make readers out of nonreaders? Highly unlikely. I would love if all my children were avid readers, if on a summer day they sat quietly in the shade of our leafy maple tree and read. But this is not who they are. Forced summer reading does not make readers out of non-readers; all it does is build resentment and create creative avoidance techniques.
I resent having to cut into my children’s well-earned, unstructured, shortened-already vacation just so someone, somewhere, can check off a box that states the school has met its summer reading requirement. Downtime for families is scarce these days; childhood is short and our precious time spent hanging out together; laughing, playing and enjoying one another is unfortunately becoming lost as jobs and schools place increasingly high and often extraneous demands on us. I say it’s time we rethink summer and give our families a real break. Let those who want to read, read away, and those who don’t, well let them spend their time, their eight short weeks, as they please chasing clouds and having fun.
(This post originally ran on Brain, Child, 2014)