My son is nearing 2½ years, and he's got a big stack of picture books. He loves to turn the pages but doesn't take any care in doing so. That means the books are often torn and the spine bent so far back on itself that it breaks. We've collected some very sturdy cardboard books, some with a spiral back, but nothing lasts forever.

How can I help him understand how a book is meant to be treated?

I respect that he needs to play with objects on his own terms and not according to the rules of the grown-ups. It's okay that some books are going to die in the process. But at some point he has to submit to the universal concept of what a book is and how it is actually meant to be used.

He has learned to identify which way is up, and from which end to start, and I guess he picked that up from when we "read" the books together. We must have provided some guidance there, more or less deliberately. It's that kind of further deliberate guidance I'm looking for.

(Note that I'm not addressing learning to read.)

  • You've actually got two issues here; the first is that he's damaging books, and the second is that he doesn't "read books the way they're supposed to be read". Seems like there should be one question for "how to treat a book", and another for "how to read a book", as they're very different, and I think they're actually different developmental stages.
    – deworde
    Mar 13, 2012 at 10:14
  • I've edited the question to limit the scope to just the part that @xiaohouzi79 and I answered. I've got an answer for the other part, but the stackexchange format's really not designed for answering multiple questions under one (the voting/answer selection falls apart), so I'd rather answer that part as a separate question. Rollback the changes if you disagree, obviously.
    – deworde
    Mar 13, 2012 at 10:26
  • @deworde: Your edit sharpens the focus, thank you. The other half (teaching to turn only one page at a time) is not an issue right now but I would post that if it becomes a problem. Mar 13, 2012 at 13:02
  • TBH, my response to that is that it will fade as he becomes more interested in story. With Spot the Dog, you could read it in backwards page order and it's just as coherent. (An issue that doesn't come up again until you start reading Joycean prose)
    – deworde
    Mar 13, 2012 at 14:16

3 Answers 3


Let him learn that when he damages a book, he's left with a damaged book.

Taking it away from him shows him that you don't want them damaged; whereas leaving it with him shows him why he shouldn't want that.

If he gets upset, show him how to fix the book (another valuable lesson), but the easiest way, possibly the only way to really teach someone to care for his possessions is to let him suffer the consequences of not doing so. One of the key advantages of paper books over digital copies is that they hold a certain history of your time with them, including reminders of your carelessness. My battered copy of Pratchett's Night Watch is more valuable to me than a first edition, because the broken binding and missing cover are reminders of my journeys to and from school.

Obviously, this means not letting him handle your own treasured First Edition Asterix comics, but you can always get him his own copies. (This may seem like a waste, but if you think about it, it's protecting something irreplaceable, and you can always give the "kid copies" to another parent later)

My slightly embarrasing example of this: I was an orally neurotic child (still chew my nails appallingly), and tended to tear little pieces off the covers of my books and chew them, up until my mid-teens, to the point where most of my paperback Pratchetts have no covers at all.The reason I stopped doing this to books is because I started to regret damaging the books, most of which I still have at home. What I've noticed going through my library is that the books I really valued, the Asterix's, second-hand rarities, and so forth, I never chewed, only the ones that were standard paperbacks and I knew I would be able to replace.

  • The phrase "natural consequences" comes to mind. This book is yours, treat it as you will and I will repair it if necessary and possible. Once it reaches a certain point (missing pages, otherwise hard to read) it's getting thrown away.
    – user220
    Mar 14, 2012 at 3:55
  • 1
    Actually, I wouldn't repair or replace it unless asked. It's also pretty irrelevant if it's hard to read or missing pages for a 2 1/2 year old's book, where he just likes the artwork. If he wants to keep it around as a comforter, I'd be fine with it. Reminds him how much he damaged it.
    – deworde
    Mar 14, 2012 at 9:53
  • This is an excellent approach, and it ties in perfectly with my overall approach that actions have consequences - good or bad. I can easily extend that to include toddler books. (When he breaks more complex or expensive toys, I still prefer to repair them than to see them mangled even further.) Mar 14, 2012 at 18:59

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say 'deliberate guidance'.

I personally think respect for certain things like animals, other people's stuff and even books, requires deliberate guidance.

Yes, children need to have time to learn what a book is and can do that comfortably with a tough cardboard book, but when it is time to use a more vulnerable or valuable book then they need to learn that it needs to be treated with care. It's the old 'with privilege comes responsibility'.

When he is ready to understand the level of respect required then he is ready to look at books unsupervised. You shouldn't blame a child if they are not ready to understand the responsibility. That requires a certain level of maturity that comes with age.

The other problem is this also requires a certain amount of trust which may ultimately be compromised but is something you unfortunately must accept. My son was very interested in looking at a set of Asterix books I had. Although I trusted him with them a few times, he also ripped them when turning the pages a couple of times. This is just life, he was trying not to rip them, but had difficulty avoiding it. Ultimately I had to stop him from reading them for a couple of weeks to understand the value of the books, but he wouldn't have learnt this without being given the trust.


I would let the child observe you with books giving extreme reverence to them. If he sees you treating the books very specially he will learn from your example.

I have two sons who were extreme opposites when it came to books. One wanted to build with them and the other wanted to read the stories. As they got older, if I wanted to punish one, I'd send him to his room. If I wanted to punish the other, I'd send him outside to play. Just remember that no matter what happens at this age, when they turn 16, they all drive the same :)

  • 1
    ... which is why most of the world doesn't let kids drive at 16 ;-) Mar 13, 2012 at 13:39

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