Several days ago, my wife shared with me what had happened between her and our son Yan after she bought the groceries at the store.
“The moment we stepped out of the store, Yan ran up to me and grabbed all the heavy bags I was carrying, insisting that he should carry them instead. Of course, I was very pleased to see his enthusiasm, but I was also taken aback: how did it happen? We had never asked him to help us carry bags unless he wanted to. He didn’t have to. Why did he just want to do it?”
“Well”, I said to her, “maybe he was just watching us carry the bags all the time, and, since we had never forced him to do it, he concluded that it was fun. After a while, he just wanted to do it. Isn’t it only natural… or supernatural?”
In his “Comme un roman”, Daniel Pennac tells a story of an amazing literature teacher who was able to instill in his apathetic high-school students the love of reading. When he first came to that school, he found his students bored to death and hating the very concept of reading. So, he just began reading to them – “Perfume” by Patrick Susskind. Weeks passed. Nobody seemed interested. Despite this, he didn’t revert to any kind of sort of pushing or forcing.
At first, the students were suspicious – he must be secretly planning to hook them up by some form of school slavery. When would he start giving assignments, ask them to write essays, analyze texts, fill in the blanks? He didn’t. He just read to them.
After about half a month, one student raised her sleepy head from the desk and asked: “Why would she do something like this?” A conversation ensued between her and the teacher, which no one else seemed to follow.
But after a while, more and more students joined in, and by the time the book was almost over, the class was, for the most part, all ears. One day the teacher said: “Your vacation starts tomorrow, so you will either have to wait until the next semester to hear the ending, or read it by yourself.” At the end of the day, the school library ran out of copies.
Daniel Pennac states his principle as follows: “If you want a child to love something, give it to him with no strings attached.” Sooner or later, the giving will produce a response. And then the impossible will become possible – take it or leave it.
As a homeschooling family, we have found this principle to work very well with our three children. At first, we tried to achieve results by “demanding something back.” Unlike our oldest daughter for whom reading is like breathing, Yan, our middle child, was never a great reader.
He would rather jump and run all day long. All our attempts at coercing, bribing and shaming him into reading failed. He just didn’t want to read. But he would listen. Oh yes. My wife searched high and low for great stories that he would love.
It turned out that he loved adventures, fantasy, and comic strips. He also loved all sorts of funny stories. Some of them we read to him again and again. And what do you think?
There came a time when he stopped my wife in the middle of a sentence and said: “Where did you just read it? I want to read this.” “Are you sure?” Inna asked. He was sure. He struggled, but he read it through to the end.
This is how it started. Now that he is 12, he still prefers jumping and running to anything else. But now he loves reading fun stories to his younger brother. He likes the idea of being able to read Tintin’s witty comments and laugh at what he read.
And recently, when we talked about The Lord of the Rings as a book vs. movie, he asked me who it was that made those 9 rings in the first place. I got him quite intrigued by saying that the book has it all, and that we would start reading it soon.
Yes, you can make a child read, but you cannot make them love reading. You can make them study math, physics, languages, history, music, but you cannot make them take delight in these things. Love is born as a free response to a gift. An ultimate gift – with no strings attached.
If you want a child to love something, give it to them for free and demand nothing back. It’s hard because you need to be patient. It may take a long, long time for them to respond. But one day he or she will pick up your bags and say: “I want to carry those”, or “I want to read it by myself”, or “I want to play the piano”, or “I want to play tennis.” Want – what a precious word!
Don’t give up, even if you have been waiting a very long time. You may start wondering: “What if it will never happen?”, “Maybe I should make them do something?” However, it will probably work. You will get the results. But not love. You will get Ishmael, not Isaac. A child of your own efforts, but not the child of promise. The child of promise is born without your help. You cannot beget anything through your own effort, except trouble.
All we must do is wait. And give – expecting nothing back.
When their free response comes, you will be absolutely sure that it came from God. And it will come unexpectedly, as a great reward. Because God desires our love, He just gives and demands nothing back.
Because love cannot be coerced, He gives to us with no strings attached. Because He’s after our love, not our actions. He makes Himself the ultimate gift, knowing that it’s the only way we will love Him in response.