Though tons and tons of research suggest the many benefits of reading to your children, there's also research that reveals fewer and fewer parents share bedtime reading with their children. More than one-third of parents in one study don't do any bedtime reading with their kids.
Whether it's due to time-crunch, life stress or (as reported by almost half the study's parents) that their children prefer television, toys or computer games, dropping bedtime reading creates a loss with potential lifelong repercussions. My rules simplify things to help nurture and protect your bedtime reading routine.
Frankly, I think one of the culprits in this erosion of bedtime reading is the sheer overload of information and choices parents are faced with. How many books, which books, how to choose, when to squeeze it in ... ayyyeeeeee!!!
My 3 rules are different from the standard, same-old-same-old you can find in dizzying quantities on the internet, such as the importance of not just reading but also interacting with your child about the meaning of the story, for example. (In fact, that guidance inspires my Rule #3, because there is a pitfall in that recommendation!) Also, the word "rules" is a bit strict sounding. In a distinction made funny & famous in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, they're not so much rules as guidelines - to leverage the most possible raising-a-peacemaker bang for your reading buck.
Rule #1: Choose Beauty, Reverence & Wonder
There is a mind-numbingly massive selection of so-called children's literature out there, and my first 2 rules will help you cut through the glut in making your choices of which books to share with your child. Although this post was inspired by last week's Flavorwire list of "50 Books Every Parent Should Read to Their Child" and there are indeed several of our family favorites in there, I cannot vouch for the fact that all 50 meet my Rule #1 criteria: the book must feature beauty (as opposed to just cleverness) in the illustrations, especially in the depiction of the human form. So many illustrations portray people in caricatured, exaggerated and even grotesque ways, which has a subtly discouraging effect upon a child's psyche.
Also, the story and its illustrations should draw on wonder, imagination, and reverence for its subject. (I have written much here on the importance of wonder in the life of the young child.) Countless books that purport to be for children feature overly adult perspectives and tones, such as irony or sarcasm. (Sarcasm is poison to the soul of a young child, who cleaves to goodness, kindness and wonder.) And whatever you read together before bed are impressions your child will take into his or her sleep and dreams.
Rule #2: Choose Books You Like
When you read to your child books that you enjoy, your little one will be nurtured by the resonance you feel with the story and illustrations. Also, through the never-to-be-underestimated power of example, if you are forcing yourself to read something that doesn't appeal to you, you shouldn't be surprised if not so many years from now your child is resistant to reading!
Rule #3: Offer Conversation, Not Interrogation
This is probably the trickiest rule of the three. It will require that you really put some mindfulness into action while reading with your child. While research overwhelmingly demonstrates the value of reading to children, there is a slight catch:
The key here is to avoid the pitfall of slipping into what I call "interrogation mode" with your child - peppering him with endless questions like a running pop quiz. I remember our R.I.E. teacher explaining that it is the child's role to ask questions of the parent, not the other way around. But what do we parents so often do? We love to see and hear our child demonstrate her precocious brilliance, so we drill her: "Where's George?" "What did he put on his head?" "What color is it?""However, being read to does not by itself automatically lead to literacy. The real link seems to lie in the verbal interaction that occurs between adult and child during story reading (Snow 1996). Since children learn language by actively constructing meaning (Vgotsky 1962; Lindfors 1987), the seeds of literacy lie in the social construction of meaning around print, that is, the talk-"scaffolding," explaining, clarifying-between the reader and child listener as they look at, point to, and label objects, and discuss print and its meaning." More...
There are a couple of issues here. First of all, this isn't the most fruitful approach to interacting with your child, and it can have the opposite effect as you'd like over time: rather than opening up and chatting with you, he may clam up. Because there's a subtle disrespect inherent in the interrogation mode, and it can erode your child's trust in you.
While I'm not a fan of the treat-your-small-child-like-an-adult school of thought, in this case, it has merit. Imagine sharing an interesting story with an adult you like and respect. Let's say you're reading it at the same time on a computer screen. Could you imagine quizzing them like we do our kids? Of course not! Instead, you might share an impression or insight or puzzlement you have about the story, and see what they think about it. You might engage in some open-ended dialogue about some of the meanings behind the characters' actions or what they might have been feeling. That's the same way we can more richly interact with our children about the books we read with them.
Another issue, though, is that bedtime reading is a time for DE-escalating stimulation, including mental stimulation. The time for engaging in lively discussion over the meaning of stories is sometime else during the day. This depends a lot on your child; some kids have no problem shifting from mental high-gear into readiness for sleep, but I think that's unusual. Bedtime reading (in my humble opinion) is more of a slow-paced, dreamy-time mode that serves as your child's soft gateway to sleep. Books I used for our children's bedtime reading often had the quality and pacing of a lullaby. Goodnight Moon is of course one of the best examples of this. A lesser-known one that was one of our favorites in this style is The Midnight Farm.
Rule 4: It's okay to keep going!
Yes, you want to keep on a regular routine when it comes to sleeping. There's a lot of merit in routine and working with our body's biorhythms. But there's a lot to be said for keeping the story going for just a little bit longer too. Think about how you devour a good book...how sometimes you just HAVE to know what comes next and so you read a little bit later than your bedtime. When you're reading with your children at bedtime, you're connecting and bonding in a way that the fast-pace of the rest of the day doesn't always offer. You're exploring together, laughing together...working through emotions together. It's a time you'll never get back, and it's okay if you let it go a few minutes past bedtime when your little says, "Just one more chapter please?"
IF you don't want to deviate from bedtime, though, consider starting to read just a hair sooner than you would normally. Then, when you stop, just a few minutes shy of when you normally might, and your child asks to keep going just a little bit more? You can indulge, and show them that you believe reading and literature is worth the rule extension.
Rule 5: Don't Stop!
There's NO age your child outgrows you reading to them. We're one million percent serious in that. We have mamas in our Mothering forums who have kids in college and they tell us their college kids LOVE coming home and having their mamas read out loud to them at bedtime! True story. There's no age they outgrow you reading to them, and though the material may change, that time and connection won't. Sure, sometimes they may groan, and they'll probably roll some eyes, but watch as they settle in when you start saying the words from the pages. For just a few minutes...they're your babies again.
Just thinking about it makes ... me ... sleepy. G'nite...