My youngest daughter is a senior in high school, and entering the second semester of her senior year has me both nostalgic and reflective. Some days I wish I could turn back time– those nights together on their beds, smelling their freshly washed hair, dinner, baths, and playing “tackle the Daddy” on the floor now behind us, awaiting prayers and bedtime.
What came next is perhaps my greatest memory, one that was admittedly difficult to pull off in the moment, but one I’ll always treasure. We’d huddle up together, open “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” “Eloise,” or one of the other great masterpieces of children’s literature, and I would read aloud to them. As many nights as I possibly could.
There are few parenting ideas in life that are silver bullets, that are always home runs in the development of our children, that have the power to transform their lives. Reading aloud to our kids is one of those amazing treasures. I read a book this summer called “The Enchanted Hour,” which is one of the most beautiful and apt titles ever. In it, Meghan Cox Gurdon notes, “the time we spend reading aloud is like no other time. A miraculous alchemy takes place when one person reads to another, one that converts the ordinary stuff of life–a book, a voice, a place to sit, and a bit of time–into astonishing fuel for the heart, the mind, and the imagination.”
The overwhelming weight of brain and behavioral research reveals that reading aloud to children cultivates empathy, accelerates language acquisition in young children, and makes children more likely to enjoy strong relationships, develop sharper focus, and demonstrate greater emotional resilience and self-mastery. Betty Bardige adds that reading aloud builds motivation and curiosity in children. Whether and to what extent a parent reads aloud to one’s child is one of the greatest indicators of success in life.
We see this reflected in school all the time. Educators of all types of schooling can identify which children have lots of stories read to them at home, and which do not, based upon the indicators listed above. If you ask an elementary teacher what you can do to help ensure your child’s success, they will all tell you, “read to your kids, and let them read to you.” All three of my girls love to read now that they are young women, a love which research shows will make them more likely to be learners for life. That same research shows the seeds of their love for reading were planted by the positive associations they had as young children, lying in bed with Dad, listening to my deep voice echoing, for what seemed the thousandth time, “in the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of–a cow jumping over a moon…” (which, of course, is “Goodnight, Moon”).
Please read to your kids, as long as they’ll let you. Even if you haven’t been great at doing so, it’s never too late to start. Studies show that many of these advantages can be found even when reading aloud to adolescents and adults. And, many note that, in this digital age, when we’re all distracted by screens and the Internet, reading aloud to children and adults, even reading aloud to oneself, is a restorative way to pull from the constant distraction and engage our minds in deep, sustained attention. Reading aloud can heal an anxious heart. Try it sometime. Read Psalm 119, or even part of it, aloud and see what a difference it makes.
I know reading to kids before bedtime, or any other time, is hard. It requires an investment of time, especially when you’re tired at the end of the day. As a young partner in a law firm, later a young head of school, I remember reading “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” and hearing the siren call of the work I had brought home, beckoning me downstairs and away from their bedside. I remember driving to the 24-hour gym at 8:30 at night, after their bedtime, because reading about the American Girls or Dora the Explorer caused the middle of the night to be my only time to work out. Life definitely gets in the way. And yet, next to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them, no gift I’ve ever given my kids has transformed their hearts, their minds, and their imaginations like those precious nights, my voice whispering into tiny ears and droopy eyes, “In an old house in Paris, that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…the youngest one was Madeline.” Magical.
Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.