When we think about parenting, the word “books” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But reading to our children is a fundamental aspect of parenting little people, though we rarely talk about it in the context of raising children.
Most of us are already reading to our children. It is something that mothers in particular already do, whether it’s the classic bedtime story or another scenario. Thinking carefully about reading to our kids can help us do it better in a way that will help us and them better steward the gift of intellect that God gives each one of us. John Stodt said that “the secret of holy living lies in the mind.” Books help us steward our children’s minds because it is what we know and understand that drives and directs how we feel and what we do. Reading out loud to our children is a potentially a powerful parenting tool when it is done intentionally and biblically. Here are five reasons to read out loud to our kids.
1. Reading builds relationships and memories. Obviously, if we are reading to our children, we are with them: cuddled on the couch, sprawled on the lawn, buckled in the car. We are together: the children hearing mummy or daddy’s voice, and all of us listening to the same author speak to us collectively. From the time I was newborn to the time I moved out of the house, my mother read out loud to me. For hours every day, my mother, siblings, and I were physically close, thinking the same thoughts. My five siblings and I have the experience of going to Narnia together, meeting John and Maggie Paton together, touring the pyramids together, all with Mum as our guide. When we are together, now all adults, someone can say, “I’ve been having a Charlie Bucket week,” and the rest of us understand. We pass on most of the stories to our children, welcoming them into this aspect of the family; even though the cousins all live far from each other, their parents take them in their minds to the same places that we all hang out. Such ties and memories last a lifetime.
2. Reading to our children helps us understand them. Not many of us read children’s literature when our children aren’t there; it’s when we are reading aloud that we are able to enjoy the stories and people in our kids’ books. Well written children’s literature understands the way that children think, and helps us remember what it is like to be a child: how fun, confusing, cozy, or scary it is for them. Have your read the story about Alfie and Bonting? Four year-old Alfie finds a stone in his back yard, puts it in his pocket, fingering it. By the end of the day, he decides that the stone has become a real friend, and he adopts it. Do you remember how things like stones can be friends? Or do you remember what it is like to be mothered? In The Railway Children, the children have done something very embarrassing and they have to confess it. “Mother was extremely angry. She was seldom angry, and now she was angrier than they had ever known her. This was horrible. But it was much worse when she suddenly began to cry.” After they sort things out, and everyone apologizes and is forgiven, the children have a talk by themselves. One of the girls says, “I should like to look at her if it wasn’t so awful. She looks so beautiful when she’s downright furious.” We quickly forget what it was like to be on the growing up side of things. Reading these sorts of stories to our children helps us parent better as we are better able to comprehend their world, or comprehend the world from their angle.
3. Reading to our children develops intellect. It’s an established fact that children whose parents read to them in the preschool years have clear academic advantages that last far into their formal education and work life. Reading with our children does not only teach them facts. It also stretches their minds, helping them to develop the capacity to reach mentally, to ponder things that are beyond them, to remember stories that moved them, and store facts that might be useful. Reading quality books out loud to our children stewards God’s gift of intellect in them and prepares them to do the same when they leave home.
Reading instills the habit of listening in our children. A child who can sit on a couch for an hour listening to their mother read will have far less trouble sitting through a service. They will also have an easier time listening to what is going on, because they are in the habit of listening to the person with the book.
4. Reading to our children fosters understanding. Few of us have the ability to travel extensively. But what we cannot do physically, we can do mentally through books. As we read to our children, they are exposed to other cultures, a vast array of personalities, and situations that all feel strange and different to them. When I was growing up, we had no money for travel, but my mother still took us to Ecuador, Russia, South Africa, France, and to many centuries of England through books. This exposure is a valuable gift to a child, as they develop understanding and perspective.
Here’s a snippet from a book about a Japanese girl dying of leukemia from exposure to atom bomb radiation: “Mrs. Sasaki spent more and more time at the hospital. Every afternoon Sadako listened for the familiar slap-slap of her plastic slippers in the hall. All visitors had to put on yellow slippers at the door, but Mrs. Sasaki’s made a special sound. Sadako’s heart ached to see her mother’s face lined with worry… The leaves on the maple tree were turning rust and gold when the family came for one last visit. Eiji handed Sadako a big box wrapped in gold paper and tied with a red ribbon. Slowly Sadako opened it. Inside was something that her mother had always wanted for her—a silk komono with cherry blossoms on it.” This sort of exposure from the safety of the couch can create deep respect for people who are different from us because of circumstance. It creates patience with people who are different from us because of personality and culture. Reading out loud helps children understand people. Not just their cultures or circumstances, but people themselves.
5. Reading to our children shapes character. Do you remember a storybook from your childhood? Think for a moment about how that story has shaped the way that you see life. Consciously or not, what we read as children forms our character by extolling the good and courageous and kind and exposing the evil and selfish. We have a comparatively limited time to teach our children, and help shape their thinking. Reading good stories out loud to them helps this.
Human beings are oriented towards stories, both telling and listening, and a good story can stick for life. It does not stick without shaping the mind that holds it. And it is sometimes a powerful tool for helping children see themselves. When a kid is being selfish and grumpy, you can say, “Remember Charlotte’s Web? Well, you’re sounding like Templeton, honey.” This is what Nathan did to David after his adultery, right? Told him a story to help him see his own sin? Sometimes the moral effect of a story is so deep that it changes how we think about our lives, and the effect is too broad to state. Putting quality stories into our children’s heads is a fundamental part of shaping character.
6. Closely related to that, reading to our children forges worldview. You are what you read. If we are reading good books with our children, it will not only shape what they know and how they listen: it will also shape what they think, what they believe, and understand, and hate and hold dear.
Think about this chunk from The Little Princess: The heroine, Sara, is about ten. She has lost her family and money, and is a scullery maid. It is winter, and Sara hasn’t eaten for 48 hours when she finds a coin that buys her six little buns from a bakery, but there is a beggar on the bakery step. “The beggar girl was still huddled up in the corner of the step. She looked frightful in her wet and dirty rags. She was staring straight before her with a look of stupid suffering…muttering to herself. Sara opened the paper bag and took out one of the hot buns, which had already warmed her own cold hands a little. ‘See,’ she said, putting the bun in the ragged lap, ‘this is nice and hot. Eat it, and you will not feel so hungry.’ The child stared up at her as if such sudden, amazing good luck almost frightened her; then she snatched up the bun and began to cram it into her mouth with great wolfish bites…Sara took out three more buns and put them down. The sound in the hoarse, ravenous voice was awful. ‘She is hungrier than I am,’ Sara said to herself. ‘She is starving.’ But her hand trembled when she put down the forth bun. ‘I’m not starving,’ she said—and she put down the fifth. The little raving London savage was still snatching and devouring when Sara turned away. The girl was too ravenous to give thanks, even if she had been taught politeness—which she had not.”
What does that do to how a child sees the world? Think about the variety of material here: self-sacrifice, loving the stranger, poverty and suffering, care for the poor, and manners. All that from a couple paragraphs that will lodge in a child’s brain. These sorts of thoughts, expressed in stories, demonstrate the difference between good and evil, and are rich soil for good family conversations. Reading develops the reader spiritually and morally, for better or for worse.
Now, I said, “for better or for worse,” because reading is only a good thing for our children and only a biblical parenting tool if we are reading them good things, things that align with Scripture. Because what they read will inform their intellect and character and theology, we need to think very carefully about what they read. As we read to them, our goal should not only be to enjoy a good story together, but also to cultivate their tastes and teach them to think critically about what they read.
Reading out loud to our children can be hard; we are busy people, and Curious George cartoons are way easier. But the benefits of reading out loud are many and significant. The parenting done through reading out loud is formative and lasts a lifetime, far beyond when our kids have moved out and are raising their own children. Tim Challies once commented in a post, “that the challenge with our children is not to find things that will entertain them, but to find wonders that will impress them. The challenge is not to pile up things for them to do, but to find things that will evoke that sense of curiosity, that desire to know more.” Reading good books to our kids does just that.