Why I Read to My Kids

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether it’s possible to read to one’s kids too much. Is reading several (sometimes many) books to them per day too indulgent? Is this too neglectful of, for example, the laundry festering in piles in the basement or the weeds in the garden?

Everyone knows the advantages of reading to children. Reading promotes a larger vocabulary. Reading encourages listening skills. Reading expands knowledge. Reading raises academic performance. And these are all reasons that I read to Sonny and Ace. But academic benefits aren’t the only reasons for my doing this (if they were, I’d give equal times to math games, which is decidedly not the case).

My friend mentioned that she reads to her four kids so often because it’s guaranteed to get them to stop talking all at once and all the time. Brilliant. This started me thinking about why I read to my kids.

  • It’s built-in cuddling time. Both Sonny and Ace like to snuggle (as do I), at least occasionally, so why not do so while reading? Curling up together on the couch with a book is cozy and preferable to trying to snuggle while I’m ironing or putting groceries away. (I know because my kids have attempted this.)
  • Kids’ books aren’t just for kids.  As C.S. Lewis observed, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The Little House books. The Hello Goodbye Window. When I Was Young in the Mountains. Poppleton. Frog and Toad. One Morning in Maine. Chicken Sunday. We All Went on Safari. Charlotte’s Web. What’s not to like?                                                        (Conversely, some children’s books are in fact only enjoyed by children. Really, why does the world need SpongeBob books?  And why do my kids know precisely which library shelf houses these? And am I the only parent who sometimes surreptitiously slides these into the book return slot on the way out of the building, moments after we checked them out?)
  • When the three of us are sitting on the couch reading, nobody is trashing the house. (My husband is a neat freak, so no worries there.)
  • Sometimes it’s irresistibly convenient to hold up book characters as role models. Not often enough to be annoying (I hope), but sometimes it just slips out: “Almanzo stayed outside all day, and it was 40 degrees colder than this, and his mittens weren’t even waterproof like yours! So it’s really not so bad out here, is it? ”
  • My kids are learning that reading is a pleasure, not a chore, and that someone who likes to read should never be bored. Reading definitely soothes them. The other day Sonny said, “I’m feeling nervous about school starting. Can we read?”
  • Books give kids vocabulary to express their emotions and questions. Familiar with Have You Filled a Bucket Today, Sonny and Ace often discuss filling or emptying people’s invisible buckets. (“She said I was getting big. That filled my bucket!” “He yelled at her. I think that emptied her bucket.”) And when we read Badger’s Parting Gifts before their grandpa’s funeral, Ace asked softly, “Is Badger coming back?” (It broke my heart to say no, because I knew what he was really asking.)
  • Reading gives the kids more folks to relate to. Wemberly worried about starting school, too.  Wilbur doesn’t want to go to the dentist, either. When I commented to Ace about his love of drawing, he nodded and explained, “I am like Tommy.”
  • If I read to my kids, then I did something right that day. Maybe the kids watched a little too much TV. Maybe my to-do list (written with such optimism . . . two days ago) remains untouched. That three-hour chunk of time when I was going accomplish something was eaten up by a car emergency. Maybe I pretty much feel like a failure today. Well, I’m going to read to my kids now, so take that, unproductive Thursday.

I just asked my kids why they like to read together. Sonny: “I like to learn more about soccer and hear what Henry and Mudge are doing, because they are funny.” Ace: “When we read it is quiet in the house.”

That’s good enough for me.

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The World Needs More Artists

“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

Kids love to be artists. For a kid, creating something is about the process, not the product, even though Pinterest, with its showcase of perfect products perfectly photographed, would have us think otherwise. And, in fact, the siren song of my “Crafts with Kids” Pinterest board has lured me more than once to transpose the process vs. progress hierarchy, and I park my kids at the kitchen table to fashion, for example, snowy owls out of pinecones and cotton balls.

“Here,” I say enthusiastically. “Start by pulling apart the cotton balls.”

No argument there. Pulling anything apart is fun.

“Now squirt some glue onto these paper plates.”

Squirting glue: also fun.

“Now dip the pieces into the glue—no, not that much; dip it, don’t drag it—and poke it into the spaces in the pinecone.”

Here’s where my plans for Perfect Snowy Owls Made of Pinecones begin to wobble.

“I want to pull apart more cotton balls.”

“I want to squirt more glue.”

“Let’s have a cotton ball snowball fight!”

“Can we put on the googly eyes now? My owl is going to have ten eyes. And I don’t want to glue cotton balls, so he won’t be white and fluffy. He’ll be brown and not fluffy.”

What was I thinking? Making snowy owls was my idea, not theirs; they want to create, not copy. I cobble together a somewhat rumpled snowy owl and let them do their own thing, which they entirely prefer anyway. They paint the cotton balls and glue them on paper. When they run out of cotton balls, they indulge in a few paintings.

Ace paints a volcano: “Here’s the lava flowing, and here are the rocks.”

Sonny: “Is that a tree growing out of the volcano?”

Ace: “Nooo . . . I changed my mind. It’s not a volcano; it’s a dinosaur. That’s its tail.”

And before he finishes, it’s back to being a volcano. Image

Volcano. Dinosaur. Whichever.

Do kids really make those perfect crafts on Pinterest anyway? Ever notice how some of the kids holding up the perfectly crafted item don’t even have paint or marker on their hand or clothing? I’m pretty sure that in some cases—not all, but some—the mom makes a few prototypes of the DYI Stepping Stone or the String Bowl or the Hula Hoop Weaving Loom and then bribes her kid with M&Ms to pose with the best one for a photo.

(Disclaimer: Following a list of instructions to complete a project and taking pride and satisfaction in the product is a good thing. But when kids want to create, they want to create.)

The Torrance Test is a system to test for creativity. For example, the subjects might be given a short amount of time to turn a series of incomplete line drawings into pictures.  Those who score the highest are not necessarily the best artists; they are the ones whose ideas are the most original and elaborate, the ones whose images tell a story, express emotion, present things from a different angle, and convey a sense of motion.

(Try it out at RaiseCreativeKidz. Find some kids and have them try, too. Make up your own incomplete figures for each other to complete. It’s fun!)

E. Paul Torrance, the creator of this test, wanted to prove that creativity was as important as intelligence—in every field, not just the arts. But researchers who have used this and similar tests have found that elementary school kids score better on the tests than high school kids do. Overall scores have been decreasing since 1990.

This is obviously a problem.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”—Maya Angelou

So go paint a picture, transform an incomplete doodle into a vibrant picture, write a song, make up a story, or invent a secret language.

And have your kids do the same.

The world needs more artists.

Normal Day

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day, I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.”—Mary Jean Irion, Yes, World: A Mosaic of Meditation.

My normal days, lately: Three of us having colds, despite being sick just a couple weeks ago; telling Ace to climb into the van so we won’t be late and him instead sticking his head into a puddle and then complaining piteously because his shirt got wet; the van being trashed despite my just having cleaned it out (no, really, I actually did!); the laundry pile towering to new and precarious heights;  my summer to-do list largely ignored; increasing frustration at constant interruptions; misplacing (multiple) things.

Sometimes when my kids are complaining too much I try to reframe their attitude by making them tell five good things about their day. They will tick off a quick list on their fingers: “Riding bikes, floating boats at the park, um  …, paper airplanes, pizza, and …” (here they  may glance around the room for inspiration) “that lamp.” And their complaining will cease—perhaps more out of knowledge that if they don’t, they will have to list another five things than out of newly ignited gratitude. (But they stop complaining, so who am I to question their motives?)

And sometimes when my head whirls with too many grievances, Irion’s essay creeps into my consciousness, a reminder that there is not going to be a rare and perfect tomorrow and that someday I may long for the return of today. The lens adjusts to a new focus.

Normal days, lately: Catching up with an out-of-state friend, going out for dessert, touring a friend’s new home, painting with Sonny and Ace, three uninterrupted hours of editing in the coffee shop (complete with cinnamon cardamom tea), picking blueberries,  VBS, chatting with a good friend during our kids’ swimming lessons, enjoying the library, watching (from a safe distance) spectacular water fights among my kids and husband,  Sonny insisting on listening to Hymns Triumphant as he goes to sleep,  Ace teaching me about dinosaurs, blooming cosmos, visiting grandparents.

The friend who posted Irion’s quotation on her blog passed away earlier this year.

One of my former housemates died this past weekend in a car accident.

They should have had decades of normal days in their future. Their families, friends, and students want, more than all the world, for the return of normal days inhabited by their wife, daughter, mother, sister, aunt, friend, teacher, counselor, neighbor.

Why does it too often take someone else’s tragedy to remind me to be aware that my normal days are treasure?  Sticky, crumb-covered, noisy treasures, but treasures nonetheless.

Wishing you all peace, joy, and a treasure chest of normal days.Image

p.s. Okay, everyone, tell me five good things about today.