The season of reading bees

How to get your kids to do that summer reading

Francis Blake for the boston globe

It’s the time of year when kids come home with summer reading lists and reminders to read six books by September, or to read 20 minutes a day — something, anything, to stave off the drop in proficiency that can come with a few months away from school. If your kids love to read, it’s no problem.

But what if they’re reluctant readers, or lack confidence, or just aren’t that interested? My kids took their sweet time in making their way into the ranks of independent readers. One now subsists on dystopian bodice-rippers featuring female d’Artagnans, the other on political intrigue via animals and magic, but there was a time when it was a struggle to get them to do their summer reading.

Here’s where my single undisputable achievement as a parent — the invention of the reading bee — comes into play. Yes, I have made myself useful in other ways as a father. Over the years I have defenestrated bats, spiders, and other vermin, and I’ve medaled in the Paternal Biathlon: carrying two bikes and a bloody-kneed daughter while holding the other daughter’s hand and discussing the relationship between how hard it is go uphill on the way back and how good it felt to go downhill on the way out. But that’s all just business as usual. The reading bee may be a very modest innovation, but it was an inspired one.


The rules are simple. Anybody in the family can call a reading bee at any time, and once it’s been called, every member of the household has to grab his or her book and get in the same room and read it. I’ve been moving the same massive couch from apartment to apartment for the past three decades, and only when the reading bee came into existence did I realize why all that hauling was worth it. When my daughters were smaller, a parent and both kids could curl up on it and read their books with room to spare.

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The reading bee had an immediate effect on my younger daughter, in particular. She went from resisting and avoiding mandated 20-minute reading sessions to bellowing “Reeeeeeee-ding bee!” and then racing to fling herself onto the best spot on the couch, where she would remain for long stretches, reading warrior-cat fantasies so intensely that I expected to see smoke and dander drifting up off the pages.

Why did it work? My friend and sometime collaborator Alan Kazdin, a child psychologist at Yale University, has helped me understand two aspects of the science behind it.

First, since anyone can call a reading bee, it removes the whiff of coercion from reading and creates opportunities for a child to make choices and exercise real power that can benignly challenge parental authority. All of that, the research shows, makes it more likely that a child will engage in a behavior.

Second, and most important, modeling has a much stronger influence on children’s behavior than telling them what to do, explaining why it’s good for them, or punishing them when they don’t do it. What you do as a parent is much more meaningful than what you say. I had assumed it was obvious to my kids that books are exceedingly important to me, but, in fact, I was modeling an entirely different priority. My actual behavior said that the most important thing was to stand in front of a screen and type.


As George Pelecanos, the hardworking and accomplished crime writer, once put it to me, “My father owned a diner, and when he came home at the end of the day, he was dead tired and he smelled like food. But what do my kids see me doing? It must look to them like I’m just checking my e-mail and surfing the net all day.”

That’s what my information-age work day looks like, and one side effect was that my kids didn’t see me read. Declaring a reading bee gave them a way to bring me out of the office and into the living room with a book in hand — visibly taking pleasure in the act of reading, a pleasure I dearly wanted to pass on to them.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’