Americans aren’t reading much to their kids. In fact, they’re hardly reading to them at all. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, parents from all demographics read to their children only 2.4 minutes per day. Compared to the amount of time Americans spend on their electronic devices (about 10 hours a day!), that’s just sad.
We all know reading to children strengthens their cognitive skills. Reading aloud familiarizes kids with language and stimulates vocabulary growth. According to studies, “Children’s books contain 50% more rare words than prime-time television or even college students’ conversations.” That means shared book reading will benefit the child even more than playing with toys or even simple adult-child interactions. When a child has a highly developed vocabulary, he will have less trouble reading and will, therefore, read more—and learn more.
But even more important than language development are the relational benefits that come from parents reading to their kids. This point isn’t talked about quite as much, but it needs to be emphasized because children need to build strong relationships with their parents just as much as they need to increase their vocabulary.
Children Remember Reading Forever
I’ve raised three children and three step-children, and they all remember my reading to them as if it was yesterday. My son who is now heading into his senior year at college, getting his degree in biochemistry and cell biology, still grins when I mention reading “Busytown” and the two of us looking for Goldbug amid the colorful pages. His eyes warm, and I always get a hug. We both cherish the time I spent with him reading the Arthur series, Narnia, Magic Treehouse, and stacks upon stacks of science books. Whether it was stormy nights or bright sunny days on the porch or cold snowy mornings before the fire, we would read, laugh, and even cry together. They were our moments—just our small place in the world where my son knew he had his mom’s attention, and nothing stood between us except the next exciting adventure that we’d go on together.
The same is true for all of my children, and they each have their favorites. My youngest couldn’t get enough of “Frog and Toad,” and my middle daughter still associates all of the Harry Potter series with special times with me. One of our favorite memories is going to the midnight release of the last Harry Potter book and my children and me participating in a quiz at the local Barnes and Noble. We were one team in about 20, and we tied with a group of college kids for the win.
The quiz master broke the tie with a question from another favorite of ours, “Lord of the Rings.” “What was Gollum’s real name?” he called out. Before anyone could utter a peep, we all three yelled, “Smeagol!” We won, getting a free copy of The Deathly Hallows, which we spent all night reading. When the last page was read, we all mourned the ending of a special time that could never be repeated. I wept as much for Dobby dying as for not being able to read that next Harry Potter book to my kids.
Reading Nourishes Love
Reading out loud was especially meaningful when it came to my stepchildren. Being a stepmom is the hardest job in the world. You give and get very little in return. Actually, you don’t get much of anything in return. Your relationship with your stepkids is like a house of cards. You are constantly proving your love, and if you do one thing wrong or hurtful—if you lose your temper just a little, or stumble onto some unseen trigger—the house of cards comes tumbling down. That’s because they don’t assume, as they do with their own parents, that you love them. That foundation just isn’t there. So, as a stepparent, you have to keep rebuilding the cards that so easily topple. Reading to my stepchildren was one way I rebuilt those cards of love—over and over again.
That was especially important with my stepdaughter because we didn’t always get along. There was a lot of resentment and awkwardness and very little trust. Kids struggle with loyalties in a divorce situation, and liking stepmom inevitably feels like a betrayal to mom. One way I bridged that gap with my stepdaughter was to create the safe space of reading books.
I am greatly indebted to “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh” for giving me the opportunity to build a relationship with my stepdaughter. I read it aloud to all of the kids, but she remembers it most poignantly and will occasionally mention it. She always talks about it with a smile, and for that I am eternally grateful—especially since there was so much not to smile about when she was younger.
My stepdaughter now loves books more than just about anything (except her boyfriend, of course). She’s in college, getting her degree in English, and always has a book in her hand. Her favorite places are secondhand bookstores and libraries (yes, she insists on using those and refuses to read any digital book—it has to be real, she says). She and I still share the “safe space” of books. Even if we have nothing else to talk about, we can talk about books.
She’ll light up as she urges me to read Jonathan Safran Foer, Anton Chekhov, or “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which she insists is one of the best books ever. Even when everything else is awkward or painful, she and I (and her dad) can share our love of “Franny and Zooey” and “Catcher in the Rye.”
Kids need their parents now more than ever as the world has become bigger and even more complex. They need that safe space with their parents (and step-parents) where the relationship is nurtured and their own sense of self is nourished in a healthy and loving way. When we read to our children, it’s not just their minds we are nurturing. It’s their hearts.