Kids, unplugged

In a world of flashy video games, a graphic novel can be just the ticket for a young reader’s entry into the world of books, says Ottawa International Writers’ Festival creative director Sean Wilson

Photo: © Samuel Borges

Books are the most advanced form of virtual reality humans have ever devised. No batteries required, completely immersive — a direct line traced in ink from the writer’s mind to the reader’s.

But how do we get tech-obsessed kids to recognize this? Will they ever learn the joys of summer reading? Or reading at all? Where are the cool graphics, the surround sound and the console controller for a book?

“All of the research shows the key to getting kids interested in reading is them seeing their parents reading,” says Sean Wilson, creative director of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival.

When Wilson was growing up, his dad, Neil, read The Lord of the Rings to him, among other things. Reading was just a part of life in the Wilson home. So much a part that eventually the father and son duo would go on to found the festival together.

“Whether they are willing to admit it or not, kids will model a lot of their behaviour on you. If you read to them, they will read,” says Wilson.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Where parents once fretted over too much television turning their kids’ heads to mush, modern-day, harried, two-income, mobile-connected, gig-economy parents struggle against devices designed to steal away time and attention with buzzes, taskings, ringtones, colours, social cues and peer group networks. 

“In the fight against AI and software design teams using dopamine reward triggers, our kids are going to lose every time. Unless we help them,” says family counsellor and parenting expert Alyson Schaefer, author of Honey I Wrecked the Kids and Ain’t Misbehavin’. “We have to artificially create that environment that we had in the old days.”

That’s what Wilson says he did. As his son turned 12 and bedtime stories became less age-appropriate, he noticed that his son just wasn’t picking up books. He instituted a family reading hour. Much like a family meal, everyone in the family gets together, in the same room, for an hour every night and reads whatever they want, independently.

Phones are turned off and go away and computers are not being used. There’s no television.

“My son, he’s a talker so sometimes he’ll interrupt and share something he’s reading. Mostly it’s just silent. It’s quiet. It’s a shared activity, but it’s solo. There’s something about all of us being together,” Sean says.

Wilson says it’s important parents step back and let their kids choose what they want and not micro manage their reading materials.

“If they want to read a graphic novel, that counts too,” says Wilson, who adds that sometimes technology can even help: “We have a lot of audiobooks that we listen to.”

Schaefer recommends seeking out unconnected venues such as cottages, or camping, although she acknowledges the wireless Internet is increasingly encroaching on areas that were once unplugged. She has also turned her own phone screen to grey scale so it’s less enticing.

When introducing technology to kids, Schaefer says it’s important to involve the child in setting out rules and to share the latest research with kids about the impact of technology on attention and how we think. Family meetings can be a valuable tool for many issues in the home but can be used to rein in backsliding on technology rules and reading time.

“Kids really do want to spend time with their parents and reading together is part of that,” she says.