Asher has been fascinated with the concept of growing up. Every time he puts on a shirt or pair of pants that doesn’t quite fit, he excitedly pulls it off and runs down the hall to deposit the item in Annabelle’s room. He understands that his little sister is also getting bigger and will soon be able to fit into the clothes he has outgrown (although she might not want to dress in dinosaur t-shirts and cargo pants). Asher is also recognizing his developing independence. He is excited to graduate from the mommy and me class to “real preschool” next year. And when I ask him what he wants to do when he is an adult, he proclaims, “Drive a car and drink out of a big boy cup! I can’t wait!”
Clearly, I should add “not letting my three year old regularly drink out of a cup” to my list of parenting fails. But among the minefield of mistakes and things that will probably turn out to be mistakes, I am completely confident about one of my parenting decisions: I read to my kids every single day. They are growing up so fast and there is no way that I can prepare them for everything they will encounter in this crazy world. However, if I can help foster an interest in other people and their stories as well as a hunger to always learn more, I think Asher and Annabelle will be as ready as anyone can be to create lives full of love, joy, and connection.
“I will defend the importance of bedtime stories to my last gasp.” ~JK Rowling
When I was teaching middle school several years ago, more research came out about the importance of reading aloud to all kids — and not just those small enough to fit on laps. So I read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief aloud over the course of a school year. Reading this 558 page book to my seventh grade students was one of the most amazing experiences I had as a teacher; the ten or fifteen minutes a day we spent sharing Zusak’s incredible story about a young girl in Nazi Germany became sacred time. This long, complex novel narrated by Death is not one many eleven or twelve year olds would tackle on their own. But because kids’ listening comprehension is much more advanced than their reading comprehension and we frequently paused to discuss what we had read, all of my students were able to become immersed in the story. We learned about history and figurative language, grief and hope, courage and friendship. And by the time I read the final, breath-taking sentence to my students, I was totally committed to reading aloud to all of my future students and to my future children.
Fast forward five years. My conviction that reading aloud to my kids is one of the most important things I can do has grown even stronger. Asher and Annabelle have been able to learn so much about the world, build their vocabularies, and figure out how stories work during our daily reading times. And, perhaps even more significantly, the hours we have spent snuggling together in the rocking chair as we explore books have been some of the best bonding experiences. We laugh and gasp and sometimes even get a little sad (like when we read the last pages of Love You Forever). With each new story, we consider different perspectives and exciting ideas. Asher asks insightful questions about characters’ motivations and Annabelle points to her favorite animals. I pretend to let out an exasperated sigh when they beg for “more books, more books, more books!” but I actually couldn’t be happier.
Raising Lifelong Readers
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” ~Fredrick Douglass
Many children enthusiastically implore their parents to read one more book, but something eventually shifts for too many kids and reading becomes a chore rather than a special ritual. And by the time these children become adults, many no longer read books at all. As I’ve worked my way “backwards” from teaching high school language arts to middle school and now to raising two young kids, I think I’m starting to figure out what is going on. There is an incredible amount of pressure on young children to learn how to read. Even two and three year olds are being pushed to recite the letters and their sounds. Despite the overwhelming consensus among early childhood education experts that many four, five, and even six year olds are not developmentally ready to read and that there are no long-term benefits to learning to read before the first grade, many parents and teachers still expect kids to be reading by the end of kindergarten, if not sooner.
In addition to pressuring kids to read independently before they are ready, I think we are also creating unfavorable conditions for reading. As many kids get older, reading is no longer a special time shared with family in a cozy rocking chair. Instead, it is something that must be done at the dining room table on their own before screen time. Rather than letting them choose from a bookcase overflowing with tales of magical kingdoms and exciting adventures, kids are assigned boring stories from uninspired textbooks or classics that fail to engage them because they lack the background knowledge and context to make sense of these stories.
So what can we do? How can we raise our kids to love reading?
- Don’t stop reading aloud to our kids . . . ever. Just like a family movie night, regularly have a time when everyone gathers together to listen to a story. I can’t wait until the kids get a little older and we can read all of the Harry Potter books together.
- Share our enthusiasm for books. One evening before Asher was born, Curt and I were sitting on the couch reading — Curt on his Kindle and me on my iPhone. Curt suddenly looked up and declared, “When our little guy is born I’m going to have to start reading real books again. I want him to see me reading.” Books are real even if they are on an electronic device, but Curt made a helpful point. Our kids won’t believe us when we tell them that books are important and wonderful if they don’t actually see us reading and hear us talking about the stories we love.
- Help our kids build their background knowledge. When I facilitated professional development workshops for teachers, one of the most effective exercises I had them do involved reading a paragraph about a cricket game. The teachers could always answer the comprehension questions about bowlers and wickets and stumps, but they didn’t have the slightest idea what was actually going on in the story. Most had never seen a cricket game. The point of this activity was to demonstrate that just because students can read (decode) a text, it doesn’t mean that they have the background knowledge necessary to understand it. The more we read with our kids and talk to them about their day, current events, and their questions, the larger their schema for understanding the world will become. Taking the time to discuss all of those pesky “but why?” questions will actually pay off! (The other day Asher asked Curt why our pinky fingers are called pinkies. They researched it, and the answer is quite interesting!)
- Fill our houses, cars, and strollers with books. Whether from Amazon, the used book store, or the library, get a variety of books for your home. Several for next to each person’s bed, a stack for the family room, a basket in the playroom, and even a few for the car and the stroller. I think one of the reasons that I’m constantly scrolling through my phone is because it is super accessible — it is within arm’s reach almost all of the time! If we can make books just as available, we will dramatically increase the likelihood of our kids (and ourselves!) reaching for them.
- Create space in our schedule for reading. There are so many things that I had hoped to do with my kids — bake, nature walks, art projects, and the list goes on and on. And we do those things. Sometimes. But we always read because it’s part of our routine. Before both naptime and bedtime, we read at least three picture books or one chapter of a novel. In a year or two naptime will be gone, so I’ll need to find more ways to incorporate reading into our daily routine.
As Asher and Annabelle continue to grow, I am faced with an exhausting number of decisions each day. Intervene when the kids are arguing over a toy or let them work it out themselves? Let them have cheese and crackers for a snack or make them finish their vegetables from lunch? Wake them up from their naps or let them sleep past four? Let Asher drink out of a “big boy cup” and spend the next five minutes cleaning up a mess or use a sippy cup? These questions seem small and silly, but I feel an almost unbearable responsibility to make the “right” choices because I want my kids to become joyful, loving, and generous individuals. Despite all of the mistakes I make, I know that we have books to fall back on. As I type this paragraph, Annabelle has just deserted the tower she was constructing and is toddling over to the cabinet. She pulls out our worn copy of Giraffes Can’t Dance and is now making her way over to me. I know she will soon turn around and slowly back into my lap. We will read about Gerald and how he finally learns that “sometimes when you’re different, you just need a different song.” Books, I believe, can help us all find our heart’s song and appreciate the songs of others. So despite the arguments and crackers, crankiness and sippy cups — I think Asher and Annabelle are going to be ok.