I was delighted when I saw a recent New York Times article touting ‘Reading Aloud to Young Children Has Benefits for Behavior and Attention.’
Reading aloud was a huge part of our lives as our kids were growing up, and it still is. My husband and I read to each other every night, and we get together with friends to read books aloud, so I’m all for anything that encourages it.
And yet, when one of the study authors says, “Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” I’m thinking that’s a little obvious.
I don’t need a scientific study to prove that reading together was one of the best things in my kids’ lives. It all started with board books, those thick, sturdy, tactile rectangles and squares filled with color and art. So much to look at, so much to think about, so much to have fun with. We said Moo, Baa, La, La, La with Sandra Boynton, and marveled at the devotion of Good Dog, Carl.
Then, oh the joy of picture books. Blueberries for Sal complemented the wild blueberry picking we did every single summer in the woods near our house. We went to Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen with Maurice Sendak. We loved William Steig’s fantastical tales of smart, resourceful creatures like Dr. De Soto, Bill Peet’s whimsical animal tales, so many folk tales like Tikki Tikki Tembo and The Talking Eggs, and the breathtakingly illustrated and beautifully told stories of authors like Jan Brett. Hours and hours were spent looking, searching, and studying the pages of Graeme Base’s Animalia.
Once the kids were able to read on their own, we continued to read together. The whole Harry Potter series, The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia, Roald Dahl, The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, and so many more. We introduced Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and other great authors early and often. With a group of friends we initiated Read and Feed, and met every other Saturday night to share food and books. Over the years we went from Prince of the Pond and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Portrait of a Lady. The kids joined a literature group led by a homeschooling mom where they read aloud classics like The Three Musketeers and Shakespeare plays.
When I think about the benefits of all that reading aloud, I can point to several. The kids developed impressive vocabularies, for one. They became excellent listeners. Our familial relationships deepened. Positive social experiences blossomed. The kids grew into avid readers themselves, and were undaunted by sophisticated writing (one daughter’s favorite book at 13 was Moby-Dick). They learned about history. Their extensive reading led them to eventually become competent writers themselves. Our reading of literature opened doors to conversations about characters and their situations, environments, behavior, motivations, and decisions, fostering empathy, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
Most importantly, reading aloud brought us joy. We did it because we loved it. We did not do it to be didactic or educational. It was part of the fabric of our lives, and the kids learned from it in the same way they learned from other things they experienced like music, nature, parties, puppet shows, trips, and above all, play. In fact, I would argue that all of it, even Moby-Dick, was play.
So go for it. Read with your kids, imagine with your kids, play with your kids, but don’t do it to make your kids smarter or better behaved. Do it for joy, and love, and fun, and let the rest take care of itself.