My tween daughter still clambers into my king-size bed every night, without fail, carrying a stack of bedtime stories. It is a ritual that simultaneously warms my heart and grates on my frazzled nerves. Reading is one of the very first things we did together when she was born; that our time spent together left an indelible mark on her is a big win in my book. That said, after surviving the increasingly hectic fall days spent wearing the myriad hats of the single working mom (from breadwinner to chauffeur to chef) come 8PM, I’m ready to zone out and binge-watch Season 7 of Orange is the New Black. By myself.
But here’s the thing: This too shall pass. Not quite as quickly as I’d imagined it would, but it will. —
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My daughter Alice, in a nod to her naturally innocent tendencies, is drawn to books whose protagonists share her first name. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Vikng Press, 1982) is a story about the narrator’s great-aunt Alice who is tasked by her grandfather with making the world a more beautiful place. What To Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic Press, 2008) tells the story of Alice Roosevelt — who broke the rules, charmed the world and drove her father (the President!) crazy.
Aside from this obvious theme, Alice is also drawn to classic titles, like One Morning In Maine by Robert McCloskey (Viking Press, 1952) and Ha, Ha, Ha Henrietta by Barbara Klimowicz (Abingdon Press, 1975), both of which highlight the inherent struggles and joy that come with growing up. The dated references are irrelevant; Alice finds her own ability to connect with these sold books — the former of which takes place in the same locale where we vacation during the summer, the latter of which was gifted to me by my grandparents on my first birthday).
Here’s the thing: Reading to kids is crucial — no matter how old they are. Even long after they outgrow the age at which it seems totally normal to read aloud, the benefits remain. The American Academy of Pediatrics writes extensively on the subject of literacy promotion; in fact, reading regularly with young children has been shown not only to stimulate optimal patterns of brain development, but also to strengthen parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development. These benefits have far-reaching consequences that run the gamut from building language and literacy to strengthening social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.
Pediatrician and child mental-health specialist Dr. Claudia M. Gold agrees, telling SheKnows that “reading aloud can be a calming, relationship-building activity at any age, both for the person doing the reading and the person being read to,” Gold told SheKnows. “As our kids enter adolescence, moments of intimacy become both rare and fraught with ambivalence. Continuing a ritual of reading aloud at the end of the day is a simple and enjoyable way to preserve moments of shared pleasure as we navigate this uncertain terrain,” she adds.
Need further evidence that reading with kids is important? The Annie E. Casey Foundation, dedicated to improving the well-being of American children, shares a staggering fact: “Reading proficiency by the third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Approximately two-thirds of children each year in the United States and 80% of those living below the poverty threshold fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.”
With most children learning to read by the age of 6 or 7, and some starting as early as 4 or 5, what does this mean? In short, literacy skills are key to a child’s future success — so keep reading to your kids. Think of it like any skill: the more one practices, the more one improves. And in this particular case, it’s kind of like a foreign language: the more young readers hear fluent readers read aloud, the more fluent they become. It’s a win-win in so many ways.
The other night, my daughter and I read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1939). Eight decades later, the lessons of ingenuity, resourcefulness, thinking outside the box, and the importance of improvising ring loud and clear — not only for the protagonist who challenges himself to accomplish in a single day what it would take 100 men with shovels to do in one week, but also for those of us whose time is spent first reading and the discussing said accomplishment. Books are vehicles, after all, creating a ready platform to discuss the challenges of everyday life and the creative solutions that abound when we simply make doing so a priority. Ditto for reading together.
“What will you do to make the world a more beautiful place?” my own little Alice always implores after reading about Miss Rumphius (who, by the way, flung handfuls of lupine seeds about her small seaside town in an attempt to spread joy to all who stumbled upon the pink and purple flowers come spring).
“Well,” I always start, being mindful about hugging my daughter close. “I had you and you two sisters,” I tell her. And I believe so earnestly in my answer. I know full well that not only bringing them into this world, but working to positively shape their experiences through our time together, has been my most beautiful work to date. I also know that, come February, my newly-turned teen might suddenly find me — and the idea of bedtime stories — entirely uncool. So, for the moment, I’m digging in and enjoying being present. One book at a time.