The Family That Reads Together
My best friends as a child were named Laura, Anne (with an "e"), Lucy and Jo. I’ve introduced them to my daughter Rebecca, and they haven’t aged a bit. They live in our imaginations, born as we read great books together. Though Rebecca has been reading herself for years now, she still loves our reading ritual as we huddle in my bed, compete for covers with her sister Katie, and settle in to answer that never-ending question, "What’s going to happen next?"
Experts extol reading aloud to children, directing most of their effort at parents of preschoolers. However, Jim Trelease, the foremost read-aloud specialist, says there shouldn’t be a cut-off age for reading to your kids. Children of all ages benefit academically when they’re read to, because it allows them to experience a wider range of books than they could handle alone and gives them constant "commercials" for the joys of reading. You’re not stealing reading time from them, either; studies show that children who are read to read more on their own than children who are not.
The intellectual boost from reading out loud is not even the most exciting benefit. Quite simply, reading together brings you together. You’re physically close, and kids know they’re precious because you’re spending time with them. Perhaps even more importantly, if you choose good books, you open doors for communication and moral teaching. Because the action in stories takes place in our imaginations, we participate in the story. We feel the characters’ joy, grief, fear, even courage. Reading is how we educate the heart, so that, like the Grinch, we can say "Our hearts grew two sizes that day."
As these characters that we know intimately are forced to make decisions, our own moral compass grows, even if the books aren’t explicitly pragmatic, or if our children can’t yet put the moral into words. In the movie The Two Towers, a despondent Frodo agonizes over whether or not their story will be worth telling. Sam reassures him, saying that whether or not children understand the moral, the story will become part of who they are. That’s the beauty of stories, to give people pictures that will stay with them and change them. To capture this magic in your own home, try these suggestions.
Make Time to Read
Choose a consistent time to read aloud. Many families huddle together right after dinner, or for fifteen minutes before bed. If children are reluctant, let them extend their bedtime if they listen to a book. Pretty soon they’ll be eager to hear what happens next!
Very young children need their own time with you reading picture books. This doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t be a part of family reading. My 6-year-old doesn’t understand all the books I read to my 9-year-old, but she likes to play in the same room, and often surprises me by recounting a story I thought she didn’t hear! Give younger children special "reading time" toys that come out only when the book does, so they can play as they listen. In fact, you can all try this. We often spend lazy Sunday afternoons with Rebecca and I knitting, Katie drawing, and my husband reading to us.
Don’t Leave Home Without Them
If you’re tired of the constant "are we there yet?" pleas from the back seat during car trips, take a book along, or borrow books on tape from the library. You can even make books part of your daily life by sticking some in your bag to read while waiting at the dentist, waiting for a bus, or even while standing in line at the grocery store.
Act Out Stories
For my daughter’s fourth birthday party, I read Where the Wild Things Are and gave the guests dress-up clothes and instruments to hold their own parade. Today, my girls love making "plays," but unfortunately these often lack something vital called "plots." Once again, it’s books to the rescue! When they choose a scene from a book, that problem disappears. Encourage your children to act out their favorite stories. Invite grandparents to watch, and remember to tape them for posterity!
After 7-year-old Danika’s parents finished reading Little House in the Big Woods to her, Danika decided to build a log cabin. Her grandfather helped her cut logs to make a miniature house, complete with a stone fireplace, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the book’s illustration. You can do the same thing with a covered wagon, the boat from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or the makeshift home of the Swiss Family Robinson. The more hands-on activities you do, the more children will remember the stories.
Discuss it Together
A book may present you with important moral dilemmas to explore with your children. Would you have had Corrie ten Boom’s courage to hide Jews in World War II? Do you have the optimism poor Anne had, even though she was an orphan? Patricia St. John’s Treasures of the Snow or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings can provide similar opportunities, as can Barbara Robinson’s hilarious The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.