Reading to My Kids Isn’t Selfless

When my first child was three months old, I decided to start implementing a consistent bedtime routine, in the hopes that she might start sleeping through the night. I settled into the wicker rocker chair with her in my lap and took The Poky Little Puppy down from the shelf. We’d been gifted a boxed set of Little Golden Books, and I would rotate through them, three or four each night, before nursing her and tucking her into her crib.

I was eighteen years old, and there was a lot I didn’t know about raising a child. There is a lot I wish I could go back and tell the terrified young mom I once was. But this one thing — reading aloud to my child every night — I got absolutely right. And I’ve been doing it every night since. For twenty-five years.

In all of the various homes my daughter and I lived in when she was small, when I was single mom and we moved nearly every year, this one thing was consistent. Our reading time in the evenings was an anchor, for both of us — something we could hold onto and feel secure in what our family meant. A love of reading was the strongest value I knew how to convey, and it was one I cultivated through daily practice.

What a joy when the board books gave way to picture books. What a joy when her chubby baby fingers first started wanting to turn the pages herself. What a delight to rediscover my own childhood favorites, doing the same goofy voices my father had done with me. Goodnight Moon gave way to Bartholomew and the Oobleck. And then The Cricket in Times Square, and Harriet the Spy, and The Secret Garden.

My eldest was 11 when her sister was born. We were still reading together every night. Gradually, she took to listening to audiobooks to help her get to sleep, and I began all over again with the board books, reading to her baby sister. And three years later, with her brother.

In graduate school, studying for my teaching degree, I learned of the educational benefits of reading aloud to children. It was validating to see things I’d always intuited — that everything from vocabulary acquisition and the development of empathy are positively impacted by reading to children. How kids are able to be challenged by books above their independent reading level, the benefits of transmitting stories in a social context.

But what I didn’t see in my textbooks was any reference to how it affected the reader. Because reading to my children has never been a selfless act. This is not something I do because it’s good for them, like a spoonful of intellectual castor oil. I do it because it is a source of joy.

Reading aloud, I am transported into the story in a deeper way than when I read silently to myself. I develop voices for the different characters, and find myself inhabiting Hogwarts, or Narnia, or even a world where sentient plants battle the undead. I am not just reader, but actor and director, an artist rendering a world before my child’s eye.

There are no distractions, save the nudge of a cat looking for lap space. No phones, no blinking lights. We are united in our focus, not so much on the page in front of us, but on the world being conjured in our imaginations. As the kids get older, it is often the only time we are snuggled up like this, getting a daily dose of human touch along with our literature.

My youngest is 11 now. I wonder how much longer he will consent to our nightly ritual. The self-consciousness of middle school looms. Each time we finish a book, I brace myself for his rejection, for this to be the last. I keep advocating for longer and longer books. This practice has been part of my identity for so long, I don’t know who I will be once I relinquish it.

In the peripatetic trajectory of my life, here is the anchor; here is the constant. For my whole adult life, I have brought each day to a close thus. A child, a book, and my voice drawing worlds in the air before us. Twenty-five years of pure magic.