“It’s tough for kids to say goodbye to the excitement of the day, so falling asleep can be so much sweeter with a parent at their side, reading their favorite bedtime story.” - Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chief of Pediatrics, Boston Medical Center and Co-Founder of Reach Out and Read
Bedtime stories. Those two simple words conjure up happy memories for many of us. If you fondly recall being nestled in a warm bed with your favorite stuffed animals while listening to Mom or Dad read a picture book, you might be surprised - and a little sad - to learn that this beloved nightly ritual is falling by the wayside in many families. A recent study found that only one in three families in the U.S. read to their children each night. What’s more, it also noted that most kids are spending more time watching TV and playing videos games than reading books.
Some people might write this trend off as a sign of our tech-heavy times. But if you’re like many parents, the written word’s decline in popularity may still make you uneasy - and for good reason.
Reading is much more than one of many interchangeable entertainment choices for children to choose from. It’s an important foundational skill that can and will shape the rest of a child’s life. Educators and pediatricians have long known that reading aloud to children influences their health, well-being, and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to your baby every day from six months onward. Early exposure to words helps your baby’s developing brain by stimulating language and cognitive abilities - which, later in life, are crucial to becoming a good reader. Why is this so important?
Good readers do better in school, which contributes to overall confidence - which in turn contributes to overall success in life. In fact, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundationshows that “children who don’t read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.” That’s some serious - and seriously scary - stuff.
Sure, we all have too much to do, and too little time in which to do it. But fortunately, the reading fix is not so hard, and will be well worth the 10 or 15 minutes it takes you to turn the pages of a children’s book.
Here are some tips to help modern parents make reading a part of everyday life, and hopefully instill a lifetime love of reading in your children:
Make stories part of bedtime… As many parents know, children’s books are some of the most fun reading around. They give you a chance to think like a kid again, to revel in the joy of being silly with a Dr. Seuss book or a Mother Goose rhyme. The nightly ritual of bedtime stories can become a magical family time that is fun for everyone. So turn off the cell phones and TV, slow down, and dream together.
…in fact, make it a party! My family’s nightly ritual goes something like this: We read together while munching on low fat/low sugar cookies & sipping milk. Each of my children gets to choose a book. We read two books, max three. Sometimes my husband, Adriano, and I act out the story. Adriano plays Spiderman and I, the Green Goblin. We jump and fly and retell the story with new twists, which makes everyone laugh. Then, if the children want, it’s their turn. They tell the story in their own way. It takes only 20 minutes or less, but this satisfying family time creates lasting bonds between us as we enter the world of imagination together, then off to dreamland.
Encourage recaps and book reviews. Every youngster has favorite books. In fact, your child will probably request her top-rated stories so often that she’ll call you out if you accidentally get a word wrong (even before she can read!). When your child bonds with a book in this way, be patient with the repetitious readings and recitations - and even encourage them - because toddler pre-reading increases literacy skills.
Encourage your children to read aloud - to anyone or anything. Believe it or not, according to a study from the University of California, Davis, second-graders who read aloud to the family dog improved reading skills by 12 percent over ten weeks. Practice makes perfect!
Find fictional role models. What should you do when your child says, “But I don’t want to read! I want to play a video game (or watch TV)!”? Fictional role models make great allies.
When my son tells me that he’d rather watch TV than read, I’ll say “You know what? Most superheroes are really smart. They love science. Spiderman loves school. And did you know that a lot of movies started with books? So this book we are going to read is actually where the Spiderman movie came from.” This usually gets him sitting in my lap, eager for a story.
Let kids build their own book collections. No matter what her age, a child is more likely to be interested in the story - and thus in reading in general - if she likes the topic.
My daughter loves stories about animals, and my son is addicted to Spiderman and other super heroes - so those are types of books we seek out. You can certainly recommend different topics and introduce your children to books you yourself loved as a child, but don’t force them to stay within strict literary boundaries. Take them to the library and let them pick out books themselves.
Set a good example. It’s much easier to raise a reader if you are one yourself. After all, kids learn behaviors and habits from watching their parents! It’s much easier to convince your child to crack open a book if he frequently sees your nose in one! Let your children see you reading on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be Dostoevsky. Read newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, how-to books. Read what you love, whatever that is. It doesn’t matter. Just read.
Teaching your children to love reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give them as a parent. Books will provide them with countless hours of enjoyment, knowledge, and a foundation for future success. Best of all, reading can help your whole family to have fun and grow closer.