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.