There are certain moments as a parent you wish you could just bottle up and save forever.
I am grateful for an acute awareness of how short “these days” of young childhood are. Like that feeling of your four year old’s small hand resting on yours, their head leaning on your shoulder and the warmth of their little body as they stretch out next to you. It’s a scene that plays out again and again in our house as we greet the night with story time. No matter how good/bad/crazy life has been, this is how we close the day. It is, perhaps, one of the most cherished things I do get to do each day with the boys.
Reading is the gateway to all opportunity in our world. Much of parenting culture these days is fixated on giving kids an “edge.” It can sometimes feel like reading has become another hoop for kids to jump through - the earlier they can do it on their own the better. There literally are flash card systems for infants to start recognizing sight words. All of this makes me cringe. If there’s anything I want to teach my boys about reading right now, it’s that it is fun, warm, cozy and interesting. Who better to teach them than Mom or Dad? Most children are actually not ready to start learning to read in earnest until somewhere between ages six and seven. Studies show that earlier attempts to teach reading backfire and result in reduced interest in reading. This makes sense, who enjoys being asked to do something over and over again that you simply cannot do?
In contrast, being read to is something that every child, even infants, really enjoy. Why? Well, first of all, I challenge you to try to read a book to a small child and not cuddle them! It’s next to impossible. They inevitably end up on your lap, leaning against you, or at least sitting close. The resultant shot of vitamin L (AKA love) is potent. They get to hear the voice of their favorite person (you!), saying a variety of interesting words, and for the most part they get to look at interesting pictures. You can take your reading to the next level by pointing at interesting things in the book and talking about what you see. All of this exposes children to a variety of new and learned words, which has been shown to improve literacy later in life. This association is so well recognized that this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents read to their infants on a daily basis.
There are books on our shelves that I have probably read hundreds of times (“In the great green room…”). Every parent can attest to kid’s love of reading the same books, over and over (and over) again. It can seem tedious; we are stuck on a particular National Geographic photo book about the Indian Ocean right now, but we really try to stick with it. Why? Science tells us that young children really enjoy knowing what comes next. Repetition allows them to lay down long lasting and enduring neural pathways and allows them to feel as though they have “mastered” a skill. My toddler loves it when I pause and allow him to finish a sentence in his favorite book.
When you read to your child, you are laying down foundations. A love of reading, a habit of spending time together, a tradition that can be passed on when your babies grow up and begin reading to their own children. There are books on our shelf that leave me with a frog in my throat, Love you Forever by Robert Munsch, for example. It's the same story that my parents read to me when I was a little girl. The story is about a mother’s enduring love for her son with the passing of life’s seasons, and I feel the poignancy of that passage of time in my own life with every turn of the page. It is beautiful and inspiring, and as I read the last verse of the story with my little boys curled up next to me, it feels like coming home every time.
Jan Sommers is a local physician. She lives with her two young sons and husband Ryan Sommers in Truro.