If you want to point out the mistakes I’ve made as a parent, get in line, because there are a lot of people ahead of you. How many times did I say the stupid thing, enact the wrong rules, make the wrong decision? The ledger is long.
But one thing Harriet and I got right was passing down to our kids a love—a need—of reading.
They’re both in college now (something that a passion for reading makes a lot more likely), but almost every time I speak to the kids on the phone, we talk about what books we’re reading. These are two students with full course loads who still take the time to read for pleasure, for personal knowledge, for inquiry.
It may seem natural for a book writer and lover to pass down the reading gene, but this didn’t happen by chance. From the earliest age, we read to our kids. The experience was as special for us as it was for them. Turning the pages together in books. Sounding out words. Correlating words and pictures. We read a page, then they read a page. Reading the Harry Potter books to them as they sat rapt and wide-eyed.
One more book, please! Just one more chapter! How many times did we cave in to that kind of request? Almost every time.
We bought books. We visited the library. We kept books everywhere in the house. We talked about stories and told each other stories.
I was thinking about reading to the kids because I just came across an article in The Atlantic, “Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers,” by Joe Pinsker. There was a passage that could have been lifted from my life:
“When I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are doing their own thing, I like to think, ‘I’m parenting right now—they can see me reading this book,’” Russo [Maria Russo] told me. Similarly, Paul [Pamela Paul] said that if “right after dinner, the first thing you do is scroll through your phone, open up your laptop, or watch TV,” kids are likely to take note. Parents are constantly sending their children messages with how they choose to spend their free time.
. . .
Parents don’t have to have grown up avid readers themselves to raise avid readers. Paul and Russo both suggested a bunch of things that parents can do to make reading seem exciting and worthwhile: talk about books during meals or car rides, indicating that they’re just as compelling a subject of conversation as the day’s events; make regular stops at libraries and bookstores, and stay a while; and give books as birthday gifts.
Reading to the kids wasn’t always a pleasure. At times it could become tedious and boring. Sometimes we just wanted them to go to sleep, but Harriet was just as likely to be the one to nod off during a reading session and have to be elbowed awake by one of the kids. I remember reading one book, “Just Shopping With Mom” hundreds of times to Julia. It was about trying to navigate the supermarket with exuberant kids in tow. Owen couldn’t get enough of “Elmer,” the colorful elephant trying to find his place in the gray herd. Repetition, repetition, repetition: it’s how we learn.
I saved those favorite books, and when I come across them now, I pause and savor the memories of reading to the kids. They were the best times. I’m so thankful for them.
Parents of young ones: read to your kids, read to yourself. You’ll be thankful too.