Why Parents Need Reading Aloud Just As Much as Their Kids

It was 2009, and I was a fresh new pediatric intern. My wife and I had just had our third child two weeks before my med school graduation and moved across the country, to a city where we knew no one, to begin my residency program with three children under the age of 4. We settled into our townhouse and I began working 80 hour weeks in the children’s hospital, working 30 hour shifts every 4th night. Despite the long hours I was more than excited- thrilled- to begin my career as a real doctor, and I had realized during medical school that taking care of kids was my passion.

My resident salary worked out to be approximately 10 dollars/hour, but that didn’t seem to bother me, at least not at first. It was a killing compared to what we had lived on as med students. But student loan payments came due, and then there was the reality of living in a large city near the east coast with a higher cost of living. The program was rigorous, the hours long, kids challenging, and life became stressful.

What does this all have to do with reading books with your kids? It had everything to do with my not doing it. Book reading became something I just didn’t have time for- a tedious chore when I was dead tired and just wanted some time to myself to relax, a grueling task when my wife and I were burned out with taking care of the kids. I learned from experience that stress is the number one enemy of emotionally supportive parenting.

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

I see my younger self in many of the parents I see in clinic who also have stressful, busy lives. In our clinic, we have started to give out books at our well child checks to our youngest patients, because we know how much of a positive difference parent-child book-sharing makes for these young ones. Most parents are excited for their kids to get a new book, and their enthusiasm is contagious to their child, who learns to take their cues from their parents about how to react to new things. Some parents are surprised when I start talking about reading to their 6-month old, and a few are outright incredulous and ask me how a baby is supposed to listen to a book without grabbing it and eating it. Not uncommonly, underneath their outward reactions, I sense a small tremor of mom-guilt or dad-guilt as they hear of one more thing they are supposed to be doing that they are failing at.

I hate making parents feel that way, but I really do want them to know about the benefits of book-sharing. I call it that because that’s a more realistic term than “reading,” which would be a better term for what college professors do. Book-sharing encompasses everything a parent and child do together in relation to a written medium- pointing to pictures, lifting pop-ups, feeling textured swatches, making animal sounds, talking back and forth, turning pages, and yes, sometimes eating the book  (though hopefully that last one is more the kid than the parent). This book-sharing has real benefits for young developing minds, but it also is good for parents.

I share my experience with parents so they can know they are not alone in their mom or dad guilt. I’ve been there. As a resident in training, I was reading about the benefits of reading and even preaching them to parents but I realized I was denying my own children those same benefits. I resolved to change that. I quickly realized that I had to get creative. My active 2 year old didn’t have the same lofty goals of magical book-sharing moments that I did. I called on the help of a really great book called “The Read Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease from which I learned some good tactics for seducing a wild toddler to look at a book. And then I began making an effort to do more book sharing with my little ones, and I saw first hand the benefits reported in studies. What are these benefits?

First, I saw a gradual but significant improvement in my 2 year old’s talking. It’s not surprising that book sharing benefits children’s language development by increasing their exposure to new words as well as the syntax and sound of language. This primes their brains for learning language.

Also, when parents make experiences with books fun, it gets preschoolers interested in learning to read, and prepares them for kindergarten. This is a very strong correlation between the number of words a child has heard by Kindergarden entry and their success in Kindergarden.

However, the most important reasons to share a book with your child have nothing to do with academics. Coincidentally, the most important factors for success of kindergartners have little to do with how well they know their letters, numbers, colors or shapes. Instead, the presence of good interpersonal skills and the ability to regulate emotions are better predictors of future success. Sharing books helps with those things, too.

Children that share a book frequently with a parent show more prosocial behavior, fewer problem behaviors, better social adjustment and empathy for other children. I noticed my 2 year old’s difficult behavior began to improve.

Book-sharing is part of the child-caregiver relationship that increases resilience and buffers against the stress caused by adverse childhood events like parental mental illness, domestic violence, parental incarceration, substance abuse, divorce, interpersonal violence, food or housing insecurity, abuse and neglect.

Book-sharing is one way parents and children become more attuned to each other. Parents learn more about their child’s personality and what makes them tick, while children learn from their parents how to react to the world as viewed from a book. They learn that they are important to the parent and worth spending time with. This helps make the world a safer place to explore.

This time of shared attention strengthens the relationship, which is the foundation of authoritative and positive parenting, and makes it easier for parents to get good behavior without harsh punishment. Having a secure base helps kids learn emotional self-regulation and confidence.

But here is the most shocking part- studies have also shown that book-sharing results in parents having decreased stress, improved feelings of competence in parenting, and greater sense of well-being. Even though book-sharing is important for kids, parents need that special time just as much as kids do. Ironically, book-sharing is often one of the first things to go out the window under stressful circumstances, because parents see it as something that adds to their stress. What if we re-framed the way we see it, and view it instead as something that actually lowers stress for both child and parent?

Looking back, my experience backs up what I have read about the benefits of book-sharing. Not only did I see improvement in my 2 year old’s interest in books, behavior, emotional state, and language development, but I also enjoyed the hassle of bedtime and the rest of my time with the kids much more.

I know from experience that these book-sharing moments aren’t always the magical experience we hope they will be. But through study and a lot of trial and error, I have learned some good tips on how to make the most of book-sharing that I will share with you in my next post. Book-sharing is a powerful enough tool that it is worth learning to use well.

The act of sharing a book with a child is the connection between two worlds where the slow, distracted, meandering path of childhood intersects with the frenetically fast-paced laser-focused drive of grown-up-hood. For parents, these moments reminds us of the world we once lived in, and for kids, it helps prepare them for the world we will soon hand them. Yes, it can be tedious and repetitive to read about Pete the Cat rocking in his school shoes for the 100th time. But as with many things in life, it’s often the simple, predictable, and monotonous things we are willing to make time for that make so much difference as we raise our kids. So if you haven’t lately, rediscover the joy of slowing down, putting away the phone, and picking up an old fashioned book, and sharing it… again and again and again.

See my next post in which I discuss pointers on how to have a more successful book sharing experience with your child.