“Go pick your bedtime book, right now,” I told my four-year-old. Afternoon meltdowns had turned into bedtime battles, and I was tired. He returned clutching the book Glad Monster, Sad Monster and curled up beside me.
His body began to relax as we read about all the things that made these monsters glad, mad, sad, and scared. “Did you have big feelings today, like the monsters?” I asked. Big nod.
“Do you need extra hugs tonight?” More nods. When he couldn’t quite tell me how he was feeling, he found a book that could speak for him — and that helped me give him what he needed.
On a recent taxi ride, the driver asked me, “What’s your best piece of parenting advice?” He had young kids at home, too, and his question made me pause. I’ve probably read too many books and research articles on parenting, so I have lots of data at my fingertips.
But there is one dimension of being a mom where the research beautifully matches my experience in the trenches – something stunningly simple, where the return on investment is undeniably good for my kids and good for me:
I read to them.
Almost every evening, after tooth-brushing and before lights out, we snuggle and read. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of family life, we end the day connected.
Reading aloud to kids has clear cognitive benefits. For example, brain scans show that hearing stories strengthens the part of the brain associated with visual imagery, story comprehension, and word meaning. One study found that kindergarten children who were read to at least three times a week had a “significantly greater phonemic awareness than did children who were read to less often.” And the landmark Becoming a Nation of Readers report from 1985 concluded that “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”
But reading also strengthens children’s social, emotional, and character development. According to a recently published study, reading to very young children is linked to decreased levels of aggression, hyperactivity, and attention difficulties. The study’s lead author shared this insight with The New York Times, “When parents read with their children more . . . they learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”
If reading isn’t part of your daily routine — or if you want to make it a more positive experience — here are three tips for making the most of read-aloud time:
Start early, read often. Reading to babies helps build bonds, vocabulary, and habits. If reading a story is part of the bedtime routine from infancy or toddlerhood, your child will take the lead in making sure this happens every night.
Read the pictures. Illustrations are visual clues that can help kids build their vocabulary and their emotional toolkit. Before reading a book, take a “picture walk” through the pages. Look at characters and the setting and make predictions about what might happen. While reading, pause to look at characters’ body language and ask, How do you think she’s feeling right now?
Press the pause button. Some nights, it’s tempting to rush through books on the way to “lights out.” But sometimes I press pause button before turning the page. Take time to look at a picture, ask a question, or share reactions. Help kids make connections between what they read and the world around them. For example:
- The grandma in this story reminds me of your grandma. They both love making pies and telling stories.
- Hey, she has brown eyes and loves dinosaurs — just like you!
- Look at all those tall buildings! It looks a little bit like New York City, where your uncle lives.
- He seems nervous about the first day of school. Do you remember your first day of school?
- There’s a bear in this story! What other stories have we read about bears?
Storytime is not some miracle solution to the challenges of raising young kids, but over time, the benefits of family reading add up. And along the way, everyone gets to enjoy the snuggles and good stories.
If you are looking for some good books to read to your kids, take a look at these lists:
- Fifteen Books to Get the Whole Family Giggling
- 15 Picture Books That Support Children’s Spatial Skills Development
- 12 Books to Excite Your Child’s Mathematical Imagination
- Picture Books to Help You Slow Down and Say Thanks
- Room for Everyone: 10 Picture Books that Encourage Kindness