“Mom, can you read to me?”
The request from my nine-year-old startled me. Not because I didn’t believe in reading to my kids and not because I didn’t want to read to my daughter, but because we had slowly moved away from me reading to her on a nightly basis.
Before we became parents, there were a lot of things that I dreamed about, but one of my biggest dreams was of someday snuggling with my kids and sharing my love of words. And I dreamed that they would soak up my love for words and someday move on to love reading and books as much as I do, that someday we would have to pull books out of their hands and turn off bedtime lights so that they could go to sleep, their dreams filled with fantasies that leaped off the pages of the books that we had forced out of their hands.
And I started them early. Within months of our daughter’s birth, I rocked her in the glider while reading board books and Dr. Seuss. By the time she was two, she was picking out her own books for me to read, and I read Horton Hears a Who and One Fish, Two Fish night after night, cursing Theodore Geisel for his longer than necessary rhyming prose. When our son joined the fun, bedtime was suddenly a family affair. We would snuggle up with books they each selected and we would read them all together. For awhile I could get them to agree, but as they got older and interests diverged, it became more and more difficult to share in story time. Some nights my husband and I would split the story duties, each of us taking a kid. Other nights, I successfully convinced them that we could do story time together.
Then our daughter learned to read to herself and the bedtime dynamics changed. There were nights that she chose to just read to herself so I would read to our son and then go in to her room to tuck her in and remind to her stop at the end of the next chapter. Some nights she would ask for a story, but it appeared that our regular nightly story time ritual was coming to an end. Thankfully, our son still wanted his nightly bedtime stories and suddenly I had more time to spend with him. He enjoyed the freedom of picking his own stories without his big sister’s influence.
But occasionally we would come together. The kids picked out The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and we read that together. We made it through two more of The Chronicles of Narnia books before they decided to move on to the next set of stories. When my daughter decided that she couldn’t agree with her brother on a book, she would sulk her way back to her bedroom, settling in to read one of the many books in her growing collection. I became convinced that our days of snuggling and reading were done.
Then one night last spring she asked me to read with her. She didn’t want me to read to her, but she wanted me to pick a book for myself and read alongside her. And so we started reading side by side for 15 to 20 minutes each night. I silently thanked my daughter for forcing me to sit down for a couple minutes and do something I really enjoyed but rarely took the time to do for fun. Then came the night she asked me to once again return to reading to her. I looked at her shelves and saw the copy of Wonder that she had just received for her birthday. I had wanted to read it as much as I wanted her to read it for herself, I just didn’t know when I would have the chance.
Well, this was my chance. I picked up the book and said, “I’ll read to you, but it has to be Wonder. Agreed?”
She agreed and we dove in. Together we laughed and cried and discussed as we read about Auggie and his struggles to fit in during his fifth grade year at a new school. We talked about kindness and bullying and empathy. She asked hard questions and I did my best to answer them. Then she took her birthday Barnes and Noble gift card and bought Auggie and Me. It brought up new discussions of struggles and perspective and even the Holocaust, bringing up more hard questions with not quite satisfactory answers.
I kept looking for books that we could both read for the first time while also wanting to share my childhood favorites with her. On one particular Saturday night, my husband took our son to a birthday party, leaving us at home for a girls night. I pulled out Anne of Green Gables and we watched the same classic film that I had watched on repeat when I was her age. That led to my first experience reading Anne of Green Gables, pulling the book off of my shelf, a book that sat on my shelves unread for nearly thirty years, and finally sat down to read it to her, both of us experiencing the literary exploits of Anne Shirley for the first time.
As parents we are frequently told about the importance of reading aloud to our children. It’s not just important to developing early literacy skills, it also can have a significant impact on behavior and empathy. But it doesn’t have to stop once they are able to break out the chapter books and read to themselves. While studies and experts agree that there are additional benefits to reading to older children, including increasing fluency, vocabulary, and overall reading success, reading aloud to our big kids goes beyond academics.
Right now I like to think of myself as being in a parenting “sweet spot.” Our kids are getting old enough to do some things for themselves but they still like us and want to hang out with us. When they were babies, snuggling up with a book was easy because they fit perfectly in my arms and on my lap and they had to sit close if they wanted to see the pictures. But now they ignore their age and size to snuggle in close because they want to be fully engrossed in the story, even if there are no pictures to accompany the words. As I read to them they stop me and ask questions, sometimes leading to discussions that are more important than the act of reading itself. Instead of learning rhythm and rhyme they are learning compassion and empathy and discovering that their mom is open to discussing hard things. And no, I don’t always have the answers, but the experience teaches them that it’s ok to not always have all the answers.
And it’s not just my elementary aged children who love being read to. This year I decided to celebrate World Read Aloud Day with my high school sophomores and seniors, bringing to school three of my own children’s favorites. As I was grabbing the books off of my son’s shelves and placing them in my backpack to take to school the next day, my son stopped me and asked, “Why are you taking my books?”
“I’m taking them to read to my students tomorrow.”
He paused for a moment and then said, “Ok,” carrying on with his bedtime rituals. It seemed perfectly natural to him that his high school English teacher mother would pack Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss to take to school to read to her teenaged students. Where others might have found my behavior odd at best, he agreed that everyone needed a little rhythm and rhyme in their lives, regardless of their age.
And he was right. My AP seniors moved from their desks to the floor so they could listen to me read to them about a giraffe plagued by a host of annoying creatures and Mr. Gump’s seven hump wump. I fell into a natural cadence, sticking to the rhythm and rhyme and only taking a breath at the natural breaks. My students, awed by my ability to read aloud without stumbling, had to be reminded that “I’m a professional,” to which they all laughed, fully aware that I was referring to my job as Mom, not teacher.
As I finished, my AP students, who have spent the last two years doing nothing but argument and rhetorical and literary analysis, joked “Ok, now let’s analyze the theme and poetic devices that the writers used.” But instead of additional analysis I sent them back to their desks so they could work on the Frankenstein analysis paper I had assigned the week before, assuring them that they didn’t need to do anything extra with what I had just read to them. After repeatedly hearing me extol the virtues of listening to audiobooks when they didn’t have the time to read for fun, I was giving them a very real reminder of the beauty of just listening to words. They needed to be reminded that they were allowed to enjoy reading for the sake of reading, not as preparation for a high stakes test.
At home the tide has turned once again. My daughter and I are stalled out in the middle of Anne of Avonlea; inspired by the Netflix series she has chosen to race through A Series of Unfortunate Events instead. And so my son and I just keep working our way through the Magic Treehouse series, reading together every night before he heads to bed to read to himself. I know that someday they will both decide they are too old to read with Mom, but until then I will treasure every word we share together and be thankful that they also want to experience the words for themselves.