Why Do We Read to Our Kids?

This is another steal from a post of mine at bookstorepeople.  I’ve become shameless.

Of the many wonderfully gaspable moments in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics (which you you should read if you haven’t), the one that may well have made most parents gasp the loudest is when their research reveals that a child’s academic success is correlated to the presence of books in his household but not to his parents’ reading any of those books out loud to him.

There’s a long explanation why this might be, the shortened version of which is: it’s not what we DO as parents so much as who we ARE. Smart, well-educated, successful people are likely to have a house full of books–and also likely to have smart, well-educated and successful children for, I guess, the obvious genetic (and sometimes socio-economic) reasons.

Now I may be the only person reading or writing for this particular blog who felt a real moment of relief on discovering that reading out loud to my children would not be a huge factor in their ultimate academic success. I guess I should confess: I don’t like reading out loud or listening to anyone else read out loud. Never have and never will.

Oh, I did my time sitting in a rocking chair with a toddler or preschooler, thumbing through the same picture books over and over again–Ten Minutes to Bedtime is seared on my brain, along with The Seven Silly Eaters (which reminds me: Nell, we still need to return that to you) and Wemberley Worried, and dozens more I could name. I read to my tiny tots because they couldn’t read to themselves, and because on the list of things you do with small children, reading clever and beautifully illustrated picture books is one of the least boring.

But the second my kids could read, I begged them to read to themselves. Not for me the curling up with the whole family to share out loud the joys of Charlotte’s Web as many others I know have done, or to cuddle in bed, taking turns chapter by chapter with a Beverly Clearly book. Nope, I was tucking my kids in, handing them a book, and then scuttling out the door to do my own thing. Sometimes I read with my kids–each of us in a different part of the bed, enjoying his own choice–but not to them.

I’m not sure why I don’t enjoy reading out loud to my kids or having them read out loud to me. I know I’m in the minority here. I think it has something to do with being an extremely fast reader–my eyes fly ahead and I know what’s on the rest of the page while my lips are still sounding out the words at the top and the tedium of working through the rest so slowly makes me a little crazy. Also, with four kids I’ve never had much time to myself so I figured if the kids had the ability to read, that was one fewer thing I had to do for them. Hooray for independence. (Which doesn’t explain why I still make their school lunches.)

Whenever my brother’s family visits, I notice how much my sister-in-law reads to her son (an only child). Even though he’s 11 now, she’ll still curl up with him on a sofa and read for–I think quite literally–hours. Together they’ve read all the Harry Potter books and that’s a lot of pages. I asked her recently how she can stand reading out loud for so long–something that would send me into Crazy Town by way of Nutball Lane–and she had a very simple explanation for it: it was, she said, the only time her son would cuddle with her. He’s a very active, athletic kid who’s not given to public or private displays of affection, but he goes into a different mode when they’re reading together, where he’ll happily plaster himself against his mother’s side and stay there, warm and cozy, until they’re done.

I get that. My two younger kids are fairly snuggly and I’m often pushing them away so I can free up my hands to do work, so I’m not looking for extra cuddling time. But if I were, I could see how reading out loud would become more rewarding.

And I’m sure tons of parents out there are simply delighted to be part of their children’s reading experience, to see their faces light up at the same passages and plot points that thrilled them as kids or that they’re discovering for the first time themselves. That’s lovely. I wish I were there with you, but I’m just too impatient a person.

Fortunately, the presence of many books around our house (and maybe the early picture book reading) worked their magic, and three out of my four kids are voracious readers. I subscribe a bit to the theory of a literature professor whom Kim knows who apparently said he doesn’t care what kids read so long as they’re reading: some of what they read will have intrinsic value, some of it will just increase their sense that reading is fun and enjoyable–it’s all good. They love bookstores and libraries and when they’re deeply engrossed in a book, I’ll find them in weird upside down positions, on their beds and on the floor and occasionally on the dining room table, lost to the world, oblivious to my calls or any distractions. They discovered the joys of literature–and, yes, junky popular fiction–without my leading the way.

So why do people read to their kids? Because they want to. And I can’t think of a better reason than that.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why Do We Read to Our Kids?

  1. Im a fan of the concept of reading to your kids, but I am a fast reader too and I cant make my eyes slow down enough for my brain to catch up!!

    Its comforting to know that just the presence of books and my example of always reading will encourage them to be readers.

    There is nothing I want more than that!

  2. Claire

    I completely agree–it makes me feel all happy inside when I see one of my kids curled up with a book. Especially if it’s a book I love(d) too!

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