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Mending a Teen’s Bad Relationship With Literacy

With each new crop of college freshmen I teach, I have a finite amount of time to understand them, engage them, and place them on a trajectory for future learning. It’s a near-Herculean task some semesters, especially in classes where I have an especially vocal group who are dead-set on proving to me that they don’t want to be in an English course.


I read them like a parent (for I am one). I see their apathy, manifested in expressions or ill-preparation. I sense their frustrations, especially when grades are involved. Their outright contempt for the subject matter is not something they are shy about sharing.   

They tell me “I don’t read,” and “I don’t write,” with the ease with which someone might say, “I’m going to the gym,” or “We’re out of milk.” It’s not a badge of shame. For some, it’s become routine.

As their professor, I have a duty to go deeper. I can’t hear these statements and ignore them, and debating them is not fruitful. Instead, I try to understand them so that I can help students move past them.

When I ask these students about their disdain for reading and writing, many reply that it has always been there. A negative relationship with literacy is like a long-held habit that they can’t imagine breaking.

Some students are quite open in discussing. When I press, many give me a definitive reason why literacy is not exciting. They are fresh off their teenage years, and for some, engagement with reading material at home and encouragement of writing outside of their classroom environment has never been the norm. Students’ talking points about the lack of a bookish environment vary.

“I didn’t grow up with books in my house.”

“I never went to a public library.”

“Teachers had us practice for standardized tests, so we could never write what we wanted to write.”

These were not my experiences. On the contrary, books were my first friends. The public library was my favorite summertime hangout, and when teachers didn’t let me write what I wanted, I would do so at home.

I understand I cannot change students’ pasts. Instead, through their education as adults, I try to show them how much value there is in literacy. Reading and writing are fundamentals, but I also have to convince students that these two things are skills. “No one is born a good reader or a good writer,” I tell them. I liken these skill sets to others, like learning to ride a bike. Just like that process involves practice, practice, practice, so too do the skills we learn in class.

I ask for their biggest buy-in: the personal desire to improve.

Just as a child who wants to ride a bike can learn, an individual who wants to be a better reader or writer can improve. If there is a willingness to be taught, something positive can unfold. However, little progress can take place with someone who is close-minded against learning a certain skill.

I know this is a tall order to ask of my students. Some are willing. Some are not. It’s the second group for whom I worry.

When students enter my class, their childhoods are behind them. Their teen years, however, are fresh in memory and experience. If I can tap into particular instances of positivity with reading and writing, then I have a chance – in the very short time students are in my class – to plant a new seed of literacy.

Parents can and should plant that seed, and it doesn’t take much to do so.

Offering an angst-ridden teen a journal can have much more than just literacy benefits. For mental and emotional health, the act of writing can be therapeutic. Likewise, taking teens to a library can empower them to take charge of their interests. Can they find a certain genre, learn about a new author, or explore a subject? This can change them in ways more vast than they thought possible. A good, old-fashioned book – atop a coffee table, on a bedroom shelf, or near a favorite comfy chair – can make it easy for teens to choose reading at home instead of other, more mindless activities.

Providing teens the environment whereby they can make literacy a choice is a gift parents can give to them, and what a gift it is!

This gift extends far, far beyond their teen years. I would love a classroom of readers. I would love to teach students who find writing a true invention activity, a process of visualization, creation, and sharing that taps into the very essence of what it means to think. To reason, to rationalize, to synthesize – these are valuable skills. I want to help students develop them.

Teaching and parenting are not easy tasks, but if teachers and parents can work in cooperation to encourage the building of fundamental language skills and the establishment of a foundation for literacy, the groundwork is laid for the future. Educators care about the future. Parents do too. We share that, and we can build on that.

There’s no saying, “It’s too late,” or “That won’t work with my teen.” Offer. Show them. Encourage. Surprise them with the knowledge that their favorite film is actually based on a book. That way, when I explain archetypes in a college class, they will be receptive. If they understand that published books involve research and sometimes include a bibliography, learning to write in collegiate format by following Modern Language Association guidelines won’t be so foreign.  

Parents should also avoid the pitfall of using books and writing as punishment. Novel reading should not be a chore. Recording ideas or revisiting events through writing should not be a task that’s leveled as a penalty. Those approaches are disservices to the groundwork that should continue through the teen years in regard to literacy.

In my class, writing is not punitive. Reading is not penance. And parents can do their teens a service by reinforcing writing and reading positively at home.

When an atmosphere of encouragement is created around reading and writing, literacy can flourish. In a world where much is beyond a teen or college student’s control, command of language through reading and writing are important skills that can keep them grounded and help them build confidence for their future.

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2018 will go down in history as the year that gave us a royal wedding, a second Chrissy Teiegn cookbook and saw Serena Williams prove that new mamas can do anything. It's also the year that a bunch of adorable celebrity babies came into the world.

Here's to all the celebrity babies born this year!

Elizabeth Smart and Matthew Gilmour welcomed baby Olivia

Back in June author and activist Elizabeth Smart announced she and husband Matthew Gilmour were expecting their third child, and in November baby Olivia arrived.

She was born in hospital and Smart shared a sweet post-birth selfie with her Instagram followers.

"So happy to welcome Olivia to our family!" she wrote.

We are so happy for her.

Jessica Chastain and Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo welcomed a baby girl

After actress Jessica Chastain was spotted out in October carrying a baby in a car seat, media outlets began to speculate about whether she and husband Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo had become parents, and it turns out the rumors are true. On November 19, E! News reported Chastain's daughter was born in the spring, via surrogate.

Chastain has not spoken publicly about her daughter or posted any baby photos on her Instagram, which is absolutely her choice. If she ever does decide to talk about the early days of her daughter's life, we will be all ears!

Until then, congratulations to Jessica and Gian!

Kate Upton and Justin Verlander welcomed daughter Genevieve

What a sweet little face! On November 10 Kate Upton and Justin Verlander introduced the world to their daughter, Genevieve Upton Verlander who was born on November 7.

On his Instagram account proud dad Verlander added notes "You stole my ❤️ the first second I met you!!!"

Looks like Genevieve's parents are very much in love with their baby girl.

Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade welcomed (a surprising) baby girl 

Gabrielle Union and Dwayne Wade shocked the world in November by announcing the birth of the daughter fans didn't know they were expecting!

"We are sleepless and delirious but so excited to share that our miracle baby arrived last night via surrogate and 11/7 will forever be etched in our hearts as the most loveliest of all the lovely days. Welcome to the party sweet girl!" Union, who has previously written about her struggles with infertility, wrote on Instagram.

Diane Kruger and Norman Reedus welcomed their first baby together

Diana Kruger and her partner, Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, are the latest celebrity parents to welcome a new baby, but unlike a lot of celebrity couples they did not do an Instagram baby announcement.

The family is keeping things low key, but People reports it has confirmed the baby's arrival.

Whether or not a family chooses to publicize their child's image and name is totally up to the parents, whether they are famous or not. Kruger and Reedus may choose to keep their baby out of the spotlight and that's totally cool. Big announcements aren't for everyone.

 Hilary Duff and Matthew Koma welcomed daughter Banks Violet Bair

Hilary Duff shared some big news in October, dropping an adorable birth announcement on Instagram and letting the world know that she had a home birth for daughter Banks Violet Bair. What a unique name!

Pippa Middleton and James Matthews welcomed a baby boy 

Little Prince Louis now has a close cousin! The Duchess of Cambridge's sister, Pippa Middleton, and her husband James Matthews welcomed a baby boy on October 16, one day after her sister's sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, announced her pregnancy.

Kate Hudson and Danny Fujikawa welcomed baby Rani Rose 

Kate Hudson is now a #girlmom.

The actress (who is also mom to sons, 7-year-old son Bingham and 14-year-old son Ryder) and her partner Danny Fujikawa announced the birth of their daughter one day after she was born on October 2. The birth announcement came via a series of Instagram slides, captioned with simply, "She's here".

"We have decided to name our daughter Rani (pronounced Ronnie) after her grandfather, Ron Fujikawa. Ron was the most special man who we all miss dearly. To name her after him is an honor," Hudson wrote.

"Everyone is doing well and happy as can be. Our family thanks you for all the love and blessings that have been sent our way and we send ours right back."

Jillian Harris and Justin Pasutto welcome baby Annie 

On October 1 Jillian Harris and Justin Pasutto announced they just welcomed their second child (and first girl), baby Annie. According to the Instagram post introducing Annie, Harris and Pasutto were enjoying a date night when Annie started making her entrance into the world, interrupting mom and dad's round of golf.

 Kim Kardashian +  Kanye West welcomed Chicago Noel West

Celebrity power couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West welcomed their third child, baby Chicago via a gestational surrogate on January 15, 2018. Chicago came into the world weighing 7 pounds, 6 ounces and was instantly loved by the whole Kardashian family, including her siblings, North and Saint.

"We're so in love," Kardashian said in a statement released shortly after Chicago's birth.

"We are incredibly grateful to our surrogate who made our dreams come true with the greatest gift one could give," the proud mama explained.

[Updated: November 20, 2018.]

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I was at my midwife appointment two weeks before my due date. After hearing my daughter's heartbeat and answering some questions, the midwife asked if I was planning to breastfeed.

Mentally scanning my perfectly outlined first-time-mom birth plan—complete with bullet points and bolded phrases which I had carefully picked—I realized that I hadn't even considered this notion until half a second ago. I was so preoccupied with the details surrounding how I was going to get this baby out of me that I hadn't contemplated how I would actually keep her alive once she was disconnected from my placenta.

I shrugged and replied, "Sure, I guess I will if I can." So I added my breastfeeding bullet point to my birth plan.

I woke up to my buzzing phone on the morning of March 29th. "Due Date" popped up as a notification on my calendar, as if the birth of my child could be scheduled in the same way you would an oil change.

I had everything planned. I would first labor quietly, un-medicated, wearing makeup and using my hypnobirthing techniques I been studying. Then, when I was ready to push, my baby would be delivered in a very reasonable amount of time with minimal tearing.

She would be placed on my chest where together we would soak in the hormonal love cocktail that I had read so much about. Afterward, I would unpack my laptop to check work emails during the downtime that I had assured myself would be bountiful during our hospital stay.

Growing more impatient as the time lingered since my due date notification, the hours turned to days. My water finally broke three long days later. My actual labor started quickly after I began bragging to my visitors about how manageable the contractions were.

I sweated my makeup off soon after. The calm and meditative laboring state I had prepared myself for was more akin to the calmness one would have upon placing the palms of their hands onto the burners of a searing hot stove.

The intervals between my contractions vanished as I eventually ripped my clothes off, hoping I could somehow crawl out of my skin. I gasped for breath between sobs when my midwife assured me that I was two whole centimeters dilated.

As fate would have it, 48 hours later, I would deliver my bruised and exhausted baby laying on my back, crying and shaking on an ice cold operating table.

As it turns out, enjoying approximately 35 seconds of sleep in a span of days doesn't do much for one's patience levels. Sore and freshly bound around the abdomen, I couldn't possibly be expected to employ my motherly duties yet, could I?

Whoever was supposed to serve me the hormonal love cocktail I was promised, apparently skipped my hospital room. My emails went unanswered as I ineptly tended to my shrieking newborn.

"The Universe laughs when you have a plan," I once read. The Universe must have taken one look at me and rejoiced: Boy was I in for a lesson.

Once settled in at home, I realized that breastfeeding wasn't going to work for us after all. Then I experienced a heavy period of postpartum depression.

Just weeks prior, I had everything planned so precisely. Things that pertained not just to the infancy stage I was so freshly experiencing now, but things that I had no right to plan, as I wouldn't truly understand them for months and some even years.

I had sworn to myself that I would always treat my child with kindness and patience...and look good while doing so. I told myself that I would reserve time for me to enjoy my hobbies and never "lose sight of myself." But suddenly, intellectually stimulating toys, perfectly situated hair bows, and frankly, brushed teeth meant much less to me.

Through the birth of my second daughter, I learned that a healthy baby is enough, no matter how they get here. This time, using medication, I graciously welcomed her into the world. Promptly after enjoying the love cocktail I had waited so patiently for, I let the nurses whisk her off to care for her in the nursery as I took a well-deserved nap.

Life with two small children required adjustments and another shift in expectations, but this time around I laughed my way through it. (And I learned to appreciate the texture of my unwashed hair, too.)

It wasn't until I finally let go of who I thought I should be that I finally felt satisfied by who I am. I am often frazzled, over-stressed and disheveled. I don't always feel very interesting and I am no longer the perfectly curated woman I once was.

I'm chronically late and not unlike my oldest daughter, I often burst in exhausted, bruised and five days late. Deadlines and appointments sometimes slip by and surprisingly, my heart continues to beat.

But most importantly, I'm an extremely good mother. Pay no attention to the non-organic popsicle stains running down my children's mismatched clothing or the bird nests of hair sitting atop their heads: because we are happy. And that is what is important.

Despite my earlier expectations that I have fallen quite short of, my children are well. They are not perfect, nor am I. Neither were any of the women who have come before or will come after me. I only make plans now with the caveat that they must be subject to change. The Universe can now laugh with me, not at me.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics says that newborns, especially, do not need a bath every day. While parents should make sure the diaper region of a baby is clean, until a baby learns how to crawl around and truly get messy, a daily bath is unnecessary.

So, why do we feel like kids should bathe every day?

Bathing frequency

There is no scientific or biological answer to how often you should bathe your child. During pre-modern times, parents hardly ever bathed their children. The modern era made it a societal norm to bathe your child daily.

Many babies and toddlers, especially those who aren't walking yet, don't need to be washed with soap every day. If a child has dry, sensitive skin, parents should wash their child with a mild soap once a week.

On other nights, the child may simply soak or rinse off in a lukewarm, plain water bath if they are staying fairly clean. Additionally, parents can soak their children in a water bath without soap most nights or as needed as part of a routine.

Cause of skin sensitivity

Many problems with sensitive, irritated skin are made worse by bathing habits that unintentionally dry out the skin too much. Soaking in a hot bath for long periods of time and scrubbing will lead to dry skin. Additionally, many existing skin conditions will worsen if you over-scrub your child or use drying, perfumed soaps.

Some skin conditions, like childhood eczema (atopic dermatitis), are not caused by dirt or lack of hygiene. Therefore, parents do not need to scrub the inflamed areas. Scrubbing will cause dry, sensitive skin to become even more dry.

Tips for bath time

Some best practices for bath time for kids who have dry, itchy, sensitive skin or eczema include.

  • The proper temperature for a bath is lukewarm
  • Baths should be brief (5-10 minutes long)
  • To avoid drying out your child's skin, use mild, fragrance-free soaps (or non-soap cleansers)
  • Use small amounts of soap and wash the child with your hands, rather than scrubbing with a soapy washcloth.
  • Do not let your child sit and play in the tub or basin if the water is all soapy.
  • Use the soap at the end of the bath, not the beginning.
  • When finishing the bath, rinse your child with warm fresh water to remove the soap from their body. Let the child "dance" or "wiggle" for a few seconds to shake off some of the water, and then apply moisturizing ointments, creams, or lotions while their skin is still wet.
  • Simple store-brand petroleum jelly is a wonderful moisturizer, especially if applied right when the child leaves the tub while the skin is still wet.
  • Avoid creams with fragrances, coloring agents, preservatives, and other chemicals. Simple, white, or colorless products are often better for children's skin.
  • Do not use alcohol-based products.

Originally posted on Children's National Health System's Rise and Shine.

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