I might not be good at some parts of this parenting gig: my son is more obsessed with screens and technology than I’d like, and the whining in this house regularly makes me want to cover my ears and lock myself in the bathroom. But, much to my delight, all three of my kids are avid book-lovers, and part of me wants to take credit for that. (That’s always much more fun than taking credit for the less-desirable traits of our children, isn’t it?)
Maybe part of it is luck and the personalities of our kids, but much of it is not, and we parents can do a lot to cultivate a lifelong love of books in our children.
Start early. From birth (yes, birth!) we can read to our children. My mother has commented that there were very few board books available when my siblings and I were babies, and it never occurred to her to read us books at that age. Yet, she marveled to see my infants light up with curiosity and joy at the familiar rhymes and colorful pages of their board books. If you read to your babies regularly, they will engage with the books, most even trying to turn the pages in the second half of first year. A kindergarten teacher friend has told me that she sometimes has incoming students – that is, 5 to 6 year olds – who do not even how to hold a book and navigate through it. This pains my book-loving (and kid-loving) heart.
If your baby or toddler does not want to sit still, just read a page or two, and do not force the finishing of a book. Or read a few short rhymes while your baby plays nearby. Even a little bit each day will help to make a practice of loving words, language, and books.
Stock your home. I’m all for decluttering toys and tchotchkes and even grown-up books, but don’t touch the children’s books. In fact, let’s add more! Children’s books are meant to be treasured and read over and over, which makes them ideal to own and love. Access should be easy, allowing your child to pull out stacks of books to page through. (I know it’s annoying to pick up the entire contents of a toddler-emptied bookshelf, but think of the sad alternative of an untouched row of books. It’s a good thing to find books strewn all over the floor, courtesy of a little one.) Tuck them all over – in the bedrooms, in the play area, in the living room, in the car. Saturate your children’s environment with quality books, and their memories of childhood will be forever interwoven with those stories and pictures.
Become a regular at the library. We are fortunate to have a wonderful library. Not only does it have a great selection of kids’ books and helpful children’s librarians, it also has infant and toddler playroom hours and terrific story and song programs starting at the baby age. And, of course, it’s all free. If your library is less than stellar, visit another town. It’s worth finding the right fit.
My kids know their way around the stacks, the librarians all know us, and thanks to my eager children, I regularly hit the checkout maximum of 50 books per patron. It has been a part of our family life since they were born, and they beg me to stop there on our rounds of errands.
Read to calm and reconnect. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is better at my house than reading together when the day has gone sour with little ones: the tantrums (theirs, and maybe mine), the messes, the potty training accidents, the sibling bickering. In these moments, reading to my children is a bit of a rescue for all of us. The gift of the book is that whenever I open it, it calms all the raw nerves, including mine, and rubs out the hard edges of the day into something soothing, quiet, and close. Sometimes reading can’t wait for naptime or bedtime, and I need to drop the vacuum or the iPhone and just be physically and emotionally close with my children, shepherded by a book.
Skip the “learn-to-read” books. You are eager for your child to read, and he knows his letters and sounds, so you sit down with the easiest “learn-to-read” set you can find and try to get him to sound out each word. Please, don’t. In these little books, any semblance of an interesting story is sacrificed in the name of short sentences and the awkward and repetitive use of one syllable “short a” or “long U” words, or whatever fits the theme of that volume. My older two had no patience for sitting and sounding out boring books when they were kindergarten-ish age, so we quickly dropped them and just continued to read aloud while they naturally became more developmentally ready to read. And each one did, in his or her time, mostly skipping over the painful sounding-out process altogether. Even better, they continued to love books, since reading never stopped being associated with engaging stories and no-pressure togetherness.
Read even to the reading child, and read a level up. Kids are usually ready to comprehend much more sophisticated plot and vocabulary than they can read by themselves. My husband still reads to our two older children, ages 7 and 9, every night before bed. It’s a daily opportunity to connect, to expose them to advanced texts, and to open conversations about tough moral issues. Over the course of a year, they read the entire Harry Potter series when my daughter was just 5 to 6 years old. There is some heavy stuff in there, but she had her Daddy chaperoning the whole way, and she understood it and she loved it. Down the hall, I read to my 4-year-old. Starting a year ago, we kicked off chapter books with Stuart Little, followed by Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the entire Little House series, and many others. I stop often, making sure she understands, commenting, and asking her what she thinks will happen next. “Wow, Templeton really doesn’t want to help Charlotte and Wilbur, does he? Why not? What do you think he will do?” Don’t underestimate your kids – but stay with them.
Enjoy it. At our house, reading is not a milestone to check off, but a beloved part of family time for all of us. Of course, I still have to fight the screens, and the whining, and whatever else is coming down the parenting pike. But the books are here to stay – to teach us, to foster connection, to inspire and delight us, to see us through.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.