Jedi Mind Tricks: How to get kids to read and think it was their idea all along


I don’t know how it is at your house, but for us, summer sometimes creates a disturbance in the force. Perhaps it’s the heat, the lack of routine, or the 24/7 sibling contact, but by mid-July it starts to feel like a “me against them” situation. Among the battles I have lost this summer are

  • The no black socks with Crocs and shorts battle
  • The clean up your damn Legos battle
  • The eat this dinner I harvested, prepared, and served you battle
  • The go outside, it’s good for you battle

The temptation to slip on over to the dark side is great, but in the parent vs. children battle of wills, I’m winning in one area and they don’t even know it:

It’s July and they’re still choosing to read.

Luck? “In my experience there is no such thing as luck,” says Obi-wan Kenobi. I use the force. Here are six Jedi mind tricks my husband and I employ regularly to get our kids to read and think it was their idea all along.  

Jedi Mind Trick #1: Good old-fashioned reverse psychology

Every parent and teacher knows that if you tell a child not to do something, he’s going to want to do it even more. As beginning readers, both Budlong and Ashman would read signs in public—on the road, in stores, etc. My husband and I would make a big deal about it, but not with praise. We’d act shocked and shout, “Stop reading! No one told you you could read!  Now you’ll know too much!” The boys got a big kick out of it. “Yeah, now we’ll know if you’re speeding because we can read the speed limit signs.” Or “Now I know which aisle the cookies are in at the grocery store!” Ashman responded particularly well to “Stop reading! You’re not old enough to read!” Don’t you dare tell a younger child he’s not old enough to do something.

Jedi Mind Trick #2: Reading is the reward

Besides participating in our library’s summer reading program, I try really hard not to create a situation where reading needs to be rewarded. You will never hear me say, “You can have screen time after you read for ___ minutes.” Then it becomes a chore. I want them to choose reading because it’s enjoyable, not because it’s something they have to plod through to get to the enjoyable activity.

To that end, we have a bedtime rule in our house: lights out…unless you’re reading. They can’t bring toys to bed and there are no TVs, computers, or tablets in their rooms, but there are books, bookshelves, and bedside reading lamps. It makes the boys feel like they’re getting away with something. Wait, so if I read a book in bed, I don’t actually have to go to sleep yet?  I can stay up late?

In addition, when I read aloud to Budlong and Ashman, I make sure this time spent together is extra special and snuggly. Usually they like to be read to while on my lap, in our bed under the covers, and sometimes even under the Christmas tree or in our Harry Potter closet under the stairs!

Maybe this Jedi mind trick looks a bit different at your house. Maybe you have other ways of making reading its own reward. Whatever you do, you want to make sure there is still good in your child’s reading and they can feel it.   Pave the path of least resistance

Jedi Mind Trick #3: Pave the path of least resistance  

If books are shelved in a galaxy far, far away, kids will never choose to read them. It’s human nature to choose the path of least resistance, so work with it by making books accessible at all times.

Performing this Jedi mind trick requires expecting and accepting a little mess. We have books in every room in our house. And they are not neatly stored spine out, in alphabetical or descending size order. They are in piles, sprawled out and down low, screaming “Pick me! Pick me!” as they compete with other distractions like toys and screens that are out all the time. The books in our home have to be stepped over to get down the hallway or pushed aside so we can eat.

Often during the school year, I leave curated piles of books on the kitchen counter for Budlong to see when he comes home from school. “I got you some new books at the library today,” I’ll say. He browses through them and delves into at least one while he eats his after school snack. He and I both know what he’s doing: he’s avoiding starting his homework. But he’s also choosing to read. I know. The force is strong with this one, right?

One of my biggest victories with this “leave it lying around” strategy was when Budlong’s class announced they would take a field trip to see a theater production of The BFG. I immediately checked out a copy of the book so that we could be sure to read it before he went. “It’s okay, Mom,” Budlong said, “Mrs. D. is reading it to our class.” Undaunted that he just dismissed my idea, I kept the book in our library basket in the living room. One night, he announced that they only had two chapters left, and he couldn’t wait to see how it ended. “I think I’m going to finish it by myself before the rest of the class,” he decided. Mind takeover complete.

If it's addressed to them, read it they will.Jedi Mind Trick #4: If it’s addressed to them, read it they will

Who doesn’t like to get mail? There are tons of magazines out there for kids. We have subscribed to or received subscriptions to magazines such as Lego Life (free!), Highlights, Thomas and Friends, Ranger Rick Jr, and Nat Geo for Kids. When the boys get their magazines in the mail, they drop everything (except their popsicles, of course) and read, cover to cover.

Build Bridges

Jedi Mind Trick #5 Build Bridges

When standing in front of the TV repeating “This isn’t the entertainment you’re looking for” doesn’t work, try showing your kids how reading can bring them closer to the things they’re interested in. For example, did you know that I am the meanest mom out there? Budlong has thus far been deprived of a PS4 and must work to earn half of its cost if he wants one. Consequently, he doesn’t play Minecraft at home, yet. But he can talk Minecraft with the best of them because he’s read the Unofficial Gamer’s Adventure books by Winter Morgan. Name a movie or TV show your child is obsessed with and then go find the spin-off books. They will read them.

Pointing out connections or explaining literary allusions for your kids is another way to build bridges to future reading adventures. Before we started reading Harry Potter, Budlong thought Dumbledore was just another master builder in Lego Movie. I explained to him that Dumbledore is a principal at a school for witches and wizards called Hogwarts. You can be invited to attend when you turn 11. The students learn how to make potions and fly on broomsticks. I let that germinate for a while. When he finally asked to read the books with me, it was because it was his idea. I can’t wait till he asks who Gandalf is!

Another example of building a bridge is the time I asked Ashman to put a sweater in my wardrobe. “What’s a wardrobe?” he asked. I pointed to the piece of furniture in our bedroom. Then I told him about a book where children climb inside a similar wardrobe and end up in a world called Narnia. “Can we read it?” he exclaimed. What a great idea, Ashman.

Jedi Mind Trick #6- Consult the masters, young padawan

When in doubt about how to get your kids to choose reading, go to the public library, and then go again. Make it part of your weekly routine. Children’s librarians are the real Jedi Masters. Even reluctant readers don’t stand a chance in the children’s section of our local library. They get sucked in with its computer games, puppets, train table, Duplo wall, dollhouse, coloring sheets, puzzles, and aquarium. And right around the corner is a whole wall of children’s DVDs. I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first took the boys to the library. How is anyone going to choose reading when they’ve made the library about playing? But it turns out that when the library is a fun place to go, kids warm to the idea that they’re surrounded by books and get excited about choosing their own to check out.

I would love to hear if you use other Jedi mind tricks to get kids to read!  Please share below, and may the force be with you!

Featured image based on "clash" by grigoriprime, CC-BY-2.0

Jedi Mind Trick #5 image based on "Day 53- Brick (Levitation)" by Gary H, CC-BY-NC-2.0



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