On Watching Our Daughter Teach Herself to Read

One of the hardest mental hurdles in self-directed education is the idea that you don’t sit down with the purpose of teaching your kids to read– not unless they explicitly ask for it. You don’t require daily reading lessons, and you never ask the question, “Is my child reading at grade level yet?”

Of course we’ve hinted at the value of reading (“This game would be even more fun for you if you could read what the characters are saying”) but never forced it. We bought practice reading books with Disney princesses, unicorns, and dragons, and we even have a large copy of Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons that’s been dog-eared at lesson 27 for a few years now.

Over that past year or so our six-year-old had developed the narrative that reading is just too hard, even though she was picking it up quite easily all things considered. Because it wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t fun. Of course our overwhelming urge as parents is to keep pushing it, knowing it will be fun once you can do it. But that “grit” mentality- the ability to push through something hard knowing it will be worth it in the end- is something that has to be experienced in order to be learned. And that’s hard, because the common culture is to push your kids through something hard, forcing them through hoping they’ll learn the lesson in the end (“See aren’t you glad you stuck it out?”).

Self-directed education takes the opposite approach. Our daughter will learn to read when she wants to learn to read. When she sees enough value in it that it becomes important to her. For her own reasons.

In life, at the end of the day, no one is going to push you. No one is going to force you through college or motivate you to become an outstanding employee and earn that promotion. No one is going to will you into writing that book you’ve always put off or starting that business of your dreams. Internal motivation, much like reading, is a foundational skill that, once developed, opens every other door behind it.

So we stopped suggesting (or nagging) that she learn to read, and yet we continued to read aloud to her on a daily basis. It’s actually a delicate dance- we never stopped enjoying the magic of books, but we never forced her to read to get her enjoyment from them either. The reading level of these books has grown, from C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, to the inter-generational conflict and time-traveling conundrums of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I really thought we’d step beyond the reach of her six-year-old mind, but she comprehended, slowly and surely, asking a lot of questions along the way.

The hardest part is to watch other kids in traditional schooling start to tackle reading lessons, phonics flash cards, and Dick and Jane. You know your child is certainly capable, but for whatever reason, she simply doesn’t want to try to read on her own. You can start to feel like a failure as a parent, because we’ve all been trained to treat our children’s progress like a race, a competition. If our children are falling behind academically, it means there’s a mistake somewhere along the line, a problem to be fixed, at least according to the popular mindset.

It’s hard to stand firm and wait it out. It’s hard to trust in our children that they’ll naturally want to do the right thing. And I could trot out the research and statistics on natural learning ages, but none of that means anything when you’re trying not to feel disappointed in your child for not being a savant at age five.

But then one day everything changed, like we hoped it would. Like we knew it would. She started seeing the signal within the noise of black squiggles on a white page. She was pointing to the words, sounding them out on her own. She picked up the Disney princess primary readers, stumbling her way through sentences. She did it on her own, with no one pushing her, and she got to own it- the pride, the success, all her own. She asked questions and we answered, but otherwise she was showing us how to read, not the other way around.

So I understand that other philosophy, the one that says we should always be pushing our kids, that if it were up to them they wouldn’t do anything but sit and play Minecraft all day. I can certainly relate to that fear. But that’s actually a problem that doesn’t solve itself as you grow up. I still have to convince myself to spend a few hours writing every week instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram. I still have to fight every day to turn on my internal motivation to accomplish my personal and professional goals.

So of course we don’t let our kids watch television all day. I see television and iPads like sugar: inherently addictive regardless of age. We all work to limit the influence. So sure take away the television for most of the day, but also take away the adult supervision, the schedules, the lesson plans, and the micromanagement. Allow your kids to truly entertain themselves- give your kids the ultimate freedom to grow and it’s amazing the lessons they can teach themselves.

The alternative is to teach them that motivation is someone else’s job, that all they need to do is sit around and wait for the grown-ups to tell them what to do.