In an age of digital media filling our eyes and ears with ever-changing sights and sounds that pull our limited time and attention toward compelling videos, podcasts, and more, has reading to our kids, or to ourselves, become irrelevant? Why should taking in the long strings of words on a page or screen, to read, be something we do instead of just turning on our devices and sitting back to let the audiovisual stimuli take over? Is the energy and focus it takes to read really worth the effort or is reading done?
Here’s our take on these questions: Keep reading alive in your life, if not for your own mental resource-building, but for the many benefits it offers for learning lifelong skills for your children.
There are many reasons to keep reading to your kids at the top of your priority list of not just what to do with your kids, but how to be with them. The kind of reading we are talking about can be called active reading, the way we can read a story to our kids and then engage them in a conversation reflecting on what was read. One reason to keep the practice of active reading alive is that it involves a very unique form of learning that builds directly on who we are as a human species: story-telling beings. The art of narrative, the linear telling of a sequence of events, invites the mind to use language to create images, what scientists call “representations,” of both the events of the story as well as the inner mental experiences—the feelings, thoughts, memories, and intentions—of the characters of those events. That effect of reading builds our creative imagination, and at the same time strengthens our linguistic skills.
Research on memory also reveals that when we can think in narrative form, we are much more likely to remember what we’ve heard. The human brain is a sense-making organ, and hearing and telling stories are the brain’s way of examining the world of events, considering how minds handle those happenings and then changing their behavior based on what is going on. Narratives are more than descriptions of things that happen, they reveal the meaning of the events and the many ways we can make sense of life.
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Need more reasons to read? When we examine our parent-child relationships and the ways our children can grow toward a flourishing life, do you know what the most robust predictor of that healthy attachment to us is? Yes, it is how we connect with our kids and see them for who they are, keep them safe, help them feel soothed, and provide each of these in a way that gives them a sense of security. Our connection to them doesn’t come out of nowhere. Amazingly, across cultures and across generations, the coherence of the parents’ autobiographical narrative—how they’ve come to make sense of their lives and be able to relate it in the story of where they’ve been and who they are—is the one factor that predicts how this security in our children will develop. When parents show up for their kids to offer them secure relationships, they have this making-sense process down. Scientists call this general ability “mental time travel,” as it connects past with the present and helps us imagine the future in what is called “a prospective mind.” Kids with that prospective capacity to view what may and should happen next have more flexibility and well-developed self-awareness and self-determination.
When we read to our children, we are not only building these important relational experiences of security and connection, but also the linguistic, cognitive, and conversational abilities that help them participate in something called “co-construction of narrative.” Instead of simply reciting words on a page, the stories we actively read to our children can be part of an ongoing conversation we have with them about events, about life, about the mind, about who we are. You can ask your child questions about the story and its characters, exploring together the meanings that emerge within your now-shared narratives. Many adults will often remark that a powerful part of their childhood was sharing stories with their caregivers. Reading to your kids helps strengthen that bond between the two of you that can last a lifetime.
Taken together, these findings point to the importance of reading to our kids to support their language development, memory abilities, and narrative capacity, as well as to help them learn and strengthen the dying art of connecting in conversations. In addition, if a child can articulate what is going on in their emotional life, they are more likely to be able to soothe their distress, to make sense of what is happening inside of them, and to regulate their emotions. As Fred Rogers famously said, if emotions are mentionable, they can be manageable. We like to say, name it to tame it. In sharing reading with our children, we are directly teaching them to use language to narrate life, to put words together to describe the unfolding events across time and how the inner mental life works.
Beyond reading just anything, sharing well-written fiction in the form of novels and short stories—narratives that have the inner mental landscape woven with the action aspects of the events—helps children imagine what is going on inside the mind—what can be simply called “mindsight.” This skill to know the mind, the subjective life of feelings and thoughts, the inner subjective life of others, and ourselves, is actually learned during our interactions with others—our parents in the beginning, and then with teachers and peers. Parents are the first teachers of mindsight.
When we read stories to our kids, we are teaching them about the mind and how to develop mindsight—the basis of social and emotional intelligence. With these powerfully important life skills, our kids learn how to navigate the complex social worlds in which we all travel. Mindsight is a set of skills enabling us to have insight, empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Why read to our kids? Sharing stories as we read with them strengthens our relationships, stimulates our shared mindsight conversations, and brings us closer, creating more mutual understanding and connection. Why wouldn’t we want these inner and relational benefits for our children—and for ourselves? Keep up those active reading skills—and remember—it’s never too late to start!
Featured Image: criene/Twenty20