Trusting in the Choices of Children

This past week, well-intentioned mother that I am, I took my sons to our book-filled, joy-filled local library. The space is inviting, and the book collection is enviable. It’s a space that inspires a readerly life. Picture books are organized in accessible bins with the front covers facing out. Colorful murals adorn the walls and encase reading nooks. Series books are organized by title and character to make it simple for early and middle grade readers to find a series they love.

I led my seven-year-old to the early reader chapter books area. I gathered an armful of books that I thought looked the right mix of sentence-length, page layout, and text complexity–what the field has historically called “just right books”. The books looked well-worn from previous readers and included a lot of animal characters that go on adventures with an unlikely friend. Maybe this would have sparked my son’s interest a year ago before he could read them. But my attempt to build a book stack of “just right” books was a bust. My son read one of the books with me alternating pages but it was a lackluster experience. Nothing about it felt joyful. My choices, driven with academics in mind, turned my son away from reading that day.

We got home and, unprompted, he went to his room and came back with a book stack he inherited from his brother. He picked one as his independent reading book, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dave Pilkey. He proceeded to astound me with his reading of the first chapter. I had made a mistake. I had underestimated him with my carefully curated book stack of suggestions. Sorting through the books on his own, he also found our next read-aloud, The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, a book I wouldn’t have chosen about zombies and monsters in a post-apocalyptic world. His instinct for story was right. It’s been our favorite read-aloud this summer making me question why I wouldn’t have chosen this book as a read aloud at home or in my classroom. The writing is clever. The characters are memorable. My own book bias was getting in the way of my son’s joy with reading.

Feeling in control of our own destiny, or having agency, is critical to finding and sustaining our own happiness. I know the research: give children access to books, provide opportunities for choice, and over time, children will identify as readers. It sounds almost too simple. So what got in my way in the library that afternoon? Well intentioned coddling on my part, stemming from anxiety that we weren’t practicing reading aloud enough this summer. I don’t think I’m alone in believing in the agency of children but sometimes forgetting to live that belief in practice. It takes constant intentionality. And sometimes we get it wrong.

What I needed to do instead that afternoon in the library was give my son space to make his own choices. I needed to trust that his choices would be the right ones. I needed to start with joy, not with decodability. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivate Us, Daniel Pink aptly reminds us, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” (108). When we limit the choices of our children they cannot help but wonder, Is this all there is?

To be a self-driven reader, writer, and person is the ultimate goal of literacy experiences at home and in school. Our children should be able to internalize the question–What do I want?–and be able to make their own decisions coming to adults for guidance when they feel they need it. Not when we think they do. Empowering children to be self-driven about books and about their life’s choices is, ultimately, an act of care.

At home, we can trust our children to make choices by:

  • taking them to the local library and avoiding the urge to build their book stack for them
  • praising their decision-making with statements like, “You made a great decision. Tell me about it.”
  • asking “What do you want?” and trusting them to answer for themselves
  • modeling our own decision-making about books and about anything else in life

At school, we can trust our students to make choices by:

  • expanding what counts as “school” texts (graphic novels, comic books, magazines, wordless books, apocalyptic stories)
  • praising their decision-making individually and collectively
  • giving opportunities for choice-driven partnerships and social literacy practices
  • modeling our own readerly lives and sharing our book stacks
  • organizing our classroom libraries to make access and interest the biggest drivers; using leveled libraries for our own instructional purposes not for student book choices