As parents, we often hear that it is important to read with our children every day, and I don’t think many of us would disagree with the researchers, pediatricians, and teachers who make this recommendation.  But, as with many things in life, it is much easier to think something is a good idea than it is to actually put that good idea into place.  I started to think about how tough it can be to find time for reading together as I read through Real Simple’s “Tips for Managing Back-to-School Stress,” (http://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/stress/labor-of-love-back-to-...) and thought about all of the other things that parents need to focus on at this time of year.  Carving out time each day for a shared reading routine sounds wonderful in the abstract, but it can be challenging to do, for many reasons.  Often, it may be that the times when you are home with your kids and able to read together are also the times when you need to get other things done – make meals, clean the house, do laundry – and may overlap with the times of day when many kids are most likely to be bouncing off the walls and wanting to do anything but pick up a book.  So what’s a parent to do?  Here are some tips that may help you follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for reading together (https://littoolkit.aap.org/Pages/home.aspx) without you or your child ending up in tears.

  • I think the most important message for parents to hear is that there is no one “right” way to read together.  Throughout the process of reading development, it is important to read with your child frequently and to make the experience fun, whether your child is three months old, three years old, or thirteen years old.  However, the specific strategies you use will change dramatically as your child gets older and will also be dependent upon your child’s interests, temperament, and abilities.  Read together in the way that works best for you both, even if it seems unconventional.  For instance, my son sometimes wants to hear the end of a story but is too restless to sit still on the couch or my lap and read in a “picture perfect” way – and it is just fine with me if we read the rest of the story while he stands next to the couch, bouncing in place as he listens, or he moves on to another activity and glances back at me to see the pictures as I keep reading the story.
  • On a related note, it is also important to acknowledge that sometimes kids just don’t want to read.  If you have a child who generally likes reading and isn’t in the mood for it sometimes, let him or her call the shots.  Being relatively flexible about how and when you read together will help your child develop an identity as a reader and prevent him or her from beginning to think of reading as a chore.  Many children respond well to having some freedom and getting to make choices during reading time.  You may want to let your child choose the book you will be reading, whether you are picking books out in the library or off your own bookshelf.  You can also let your child select where and when you will read... within reason, of course.
  • By the same token, read for the amount of time that is pleasurable for you both and not longer than that.  I would much rather enjoy six minutes of enthusiastic, cuddly shared reading time with my son and then call it quits, than force him to stay on the couch once he loses interest, just so that I can know that we read for twenty minutes.  Often, we feel compelled to get to the last page in a story even when everyone is feeling antsy or cranky, and I think one of the easiest ways to make reading time together joyful is to give yourself permission to close a book in the middle and know that you will pick it up again another day.  If you are concerned that your reading sessions are shorter than you’d like them to be, try to gradually increase the amount of time you read together – perhaps just by one minute each day – and meet your goal that way.   
  • Regardless of how long you are reading with your child, be sure to focus on making that time loving and playful.  A big part of the reason children like reading with their parents is because it is an opportunity to get attention, cuddles, and questions answered.  Be affectionate in whatever way your child likes best – put him on your lap, put your arm around her, ruffle some hair, or give hugs.  Pick books that make you laugh and talk together.  And always find ways to praise your child’s behavior and effort (rather than praising his or her reading abilities).  Let him know how impressed you are with how closely he listened to the story, or with the great predictions he made about what would happen next, or how hard he worked to identify the letters on the page.  Praising effort will encourage him to keep being an attentive reader, even when you look at books that may be more challenging.
  • Of course, the most challenging situation is how to read with a child who really doesn’t seem to like to read anything.  If you are having difficulty engaging your child in reading time, try searching for books on topics that she finds interesting (even if those topics are not ones that you find engaging).  If your child enjoys looking at comic books or graphic novels, embrace this type of reading, rather than discouraging it.  Although it might be surprising to hear, comics include much richer language than we encounter in a typical day.  Reading any printed material also helps children get comfortable turning pages, and gives you the chance to talk with your child about new ideas and vocabulary words.  And reading material online can be another great way to motivate a child who doesn’t seem to get excited about old-fashioned books, although that is a topic for its own post!

Especially as the school year begins again, life is hectic for everyone.  I hope these tips help you think about ways to make shared reading time feel like a reward and a break, rather than another thing that just needs to get done before bedtime.  If you and your child are having fun together, you can’t go wrong.

About the Authors

Anne Cunningham Ph.D.

Anne Cunningham, Ph.D., is Professor of Cognition and Development at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

Jamie Zibulsky, Ph.D.

Jamie Zibulsky, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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