I’ll never forget the “ah-ha” moment I had a few years ago at my daughter June’s six-week checkup. As the nurse jotted down June’s weight, she took a moment to smile and speak directly to her in a slow, clear voice—and all the while June was wiggling her arms and legs, opening her mouth wide and sticking out her tongue excitedly. The nurse commented, “You just want to talk so badly, don’t you? You are trying so hard. You want to talk!” Up until that point, I had never really thought that deeply about my baby’s wants and needs beyond warm milk and clean diapers. That epiphany has stayed with me — she wants to communicate, to be heard — and someday soon, she will want to read because she will want to know what the words on the page mean.
The value of a love for reading extends far beyond a simple desire fulfilled. Growing up, my parents’ divorce resulted in some long, lonely hours that needed to be filled. At one parent’s house was a hardcover, illustrated children’s encyclopedia. I read it over and over again until the binding broke. It was an escape and a comfort to get lost in those glossy pages. As soon as I was old enough, I would ride my bike nine blocks to the library on Center Street and check out stacks of Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High books; paperbacks that aren’t considered classics by any stretch, but are books nonetheless.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, every second spent reading was enriching and strengthening my brain. It was an activity that shaped me and has now carried me throughout my entire academic (English major) and working (writer) life — and it set me up to follow that path.
Now that I’m a mom, I have an even deeper understanding of the need to get my daughter hooked on reading as early as possible. I know that trips to the library and reading to her at bath time, bedtime and noontime are not just ways to pass the time; they are proven key indicators of children’s future success. The list of benefits to children is impressive and includes: enhanced brain activity, better communication, more logical thinking, more discipline, and more empathy; qualities that would make for a pretty amazing kid, right?
Boredom can be a good thing for kids. In my case, it allowed me to secure my passion for reading. But, when’s the last time you saw a kid sitting around twiddling their thumbs? Thumbs hardly twiddle these days before they are given a screen to tap. So how can we as parents make sure that a spark for reading within our kids doesn’t flicker and die, but instead blazes and warms them for a lifetime? So how do you raise a book lover?
1. Read Early and Don’t Stop: Just because a newborn can’t talk doesn’t mean he doesn’t want you to. The same nurse from the checkup advised me that I ought to read to June for twenty minutes a day. At the time it seemed a little over-the-top for a six-week-old. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, if I could go back, I would start reading to her from birth. If you think about it, you only have a very small window of time before babies start talking. And, it is one of the most important times for forming the connections, which will strengthen language and literacy as well as emotional and social health. Likewise, just because a child learns to read doesn’t mean they want you to stop reading to them.
2. Monkey See, Monkey Do: This is embarrassing, but the other day my daughter was playing with both an oversized calculator and a tiny one, and calling them her phone and her “’puter.” Ouch. I realized she was imitating my bad habit of being on my laptop and smartphone at the same time. It is both comforting and a little frightening to know that our kids will mimic us. It’s also helpful to remember that they are not born with innate knowledge of books, and it’s kind of in our job description to let them in on it.
3. Room to Read: If you could make just one home improvement today to help your child become a book lover for life, it would be to create a space dedicated to reading for pleasure. When June was almost two, we had little furniture, but I fashioned a “bookshelf” by placing a crate on the ground, her little lounge chair next to it, and painted “June’s Book Nook” on the wall. She loved the ritual of picking out a book, getting comfy, and flipping through the pages. Kids are magically drawn to places where they can “hide.” Add a sheet, some twinkle lights and pillows, and you’ve just made one of the cheapest, most important contributions to your children’s future.
These are three of the easiest, yet most impactful ways we can help foster a connection to books and reading in our babies and kids. There are few gifts more valuable that a parent can give: a skill and a love for reading will carry them through school, careers, and the ups and downs of life.