Summer Time Reading
"Once upon a time..." These four powerful words begin some of the best children's stories in the world, and most people have fond memories of being read to as a child, whether it was Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends or Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon. Reading with a child isn't just a gift for the child – it's also a gift for the parent.
"Encouraging parents to read to, with and by the side of the child is something I encourage," says Sylvia Maxson, an associate professor of liberal studies and English at California State University in Long Beach, Calif. "Perhaps if the parent is used to reading aloud to the child, then the child is used to that and enjoys it, [then] the parent might say 'How about you read some of it to me? You read this chapter, and I'll read the next?' [Parents] have that opportunity to suggest reading in different ways."
Tell Me a Story
"I don't remember the very first book I read to the kids," says Heather Haapoja, a Duluth, Minn., mother of four and children's writer and editor of the Kids Need to Read Newsletter. "I started reading to them from the moment I could prop them in my lap to see the pictures, probably around 2 or 3 months old, mostly picture books with very little text, because keeping those pages turning really holds interest at that age. But it wasn't long before we were into longer stories. I remember reading chapter books like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to them as young as 3 or 4 years old, one chapter at a sitting."
"We actually started reading to our kids in utero, but not because we're weird or thought it would help them to be smarter or anything," says Rebecca Rohan, mother of Madeleine, 4, and Brendan, 3, in Buffalo, N.Y. "My husband used to talk to my stomach every night, but sometimes he ran out of things to say, so he would read. He'd usually read to them things like Dr. Seuss, because of the rhyming."
Setting an example by reading themselves is one of the first ways that parents can encourage their children to read. But sharing the adventures that children find in books offers much more than just encouragement.
"Getting them interested in reading is the first step," says Maxson. "Tap into what the child is interested in. A prime example: I had a mother that had a fifth grader that didn't like to read at all. He had some friends over one afternoon, and she said 'Let's go up to the Kawasaki Motorcycle Shop.' While they were there and looking around, she picked up pieces of literature and put them on the table, and over the next few weeks she took them to several shops. They were hooked, and when she suggested 'Why don't we do some research on motorcycles?' she got them interested in nonfiction. Later, she went to the librarian and asked if there were any fiction stories that were related to kids and motorcycles." By tapping into their interest in motorcycles, she got them reading.
"We never thought my son would be a fan of reading. He never had the patience to sit still for even two short books in a row, but at one point, he suddenly started not only sitting up and paying rapt attention, but asking us to read to him," says Rohan.
What to Read
"I was recently writing about the first book I ever read by myself," says Haapoja. "It was a picture book called The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber. My mom had read it to me many times, and I likely had most of it memorized. But I clearly remember that moment when everything clicked and the squiggles and dots on the page suddenly made sense. I still have that book and I read it to my children."
"The first book I ever read to anyone was Happiness is a Warm Puppy by Charles Schultz," says Rohan. "I remember reading to my dad in his big black reclining chair and him being blown away by it. And now I love to read Guess How Much I Love You to my children."
"Go with the child's interests," says Maxson. "Once you have done that, you can find books with a similar theme or plot to bring them back to reading, whether their interest is mystery, skating, biography or sports. The best thing you can do is share that interest together in the literature, finding it, reading it and talking about it. By sharing it together, the parent has some knowledge of what the child is reading, and it's a bit different than watching the television together. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she was reading Judy Blume. She asked a lot of questions, but I knew what she was reading and what contexts Blume used, so I could answer those questions and share those experiences."
Share the Experience
"I love the snuggling and the closeness that we share when we are reading together," says Rohan. "I love trying to get across the language, the rhythm and the sound of it. I love trying to use different voices for different characters to help the stories come alive. I think reading has helped my kids to develop their vocabularies and their understanding of the world. It has given them a framework to understand certain situations and help develop their imaginations."
"There are so many benefits of reading together, but I think the greatest is the connection that comes from the shared interest and seeing that connection change and grow through the years," says Haapoja. "I'm thrilled when my 5-year-old wants me to read him a story, when my 8-year-old shares her excitement at finishing a chapter book and when my teenagers say, 'Mom, you've got to read this book! It's great!' We may be going in five different directions most of the time, but our shared love of reading keeps us all connected in a very important way."
"Our kids enjoy mysteries. They seem to prefer series to individual books because they get to know the characters and the settings," says Tim Bete of Beavercreek, Ohio, author of the Where I Live column. "I allow them to pick books within the series, and we always read just before bed and sometimes during the day, especially when it's raining. Reading with your children always opens up discussions. We talk about the books, what the characters did and why they did it. Reading provides opportunities for me to comment on the good and bad behavior of the characters, and it also provides an opportunity for my kids to say what they might have done in a similar situation."
In the end, the benefits of a literary bond between parent and child are endless. This is a bond that matures with the child as the parent progresses from reading to them, with them and finally, just reading by them and sharing favorite titles and authors. "One of the things that parents need to do is to not get discouraged," says Maxson. "Their children will like some books and not like others. Constantly offer new things. And it's up to us, the parents, to find those new things and utilize this positive parenting tool."