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Reading to children is a must-do for the elites, the educated and even the middle class. Among my peers, no one feels safe admitting that they don’t regularly read to their children. You might as well say you put soda in their baby bottles or smoke while you were pregnant.
I’ll tell you a secret though: my parents rarely read to me or my sister. They read, but not to us so much. My dad read for enjoyment— historical accounts of war, various thrillers, and spy novels. My mom read the bible and self-help type books. I remember my dad started reading Fellowship of the Rings to us, but it was a short endeavor, thrown off by his sporadic work hours and our little girl wiggles.
Though my parents didn’t sit with us in the evening for a bedtime story, they did talk to us. Looking back I realize they trusted us both emotionally and intellectually to chew on topics and nuances that other parents seldom broached with their kids.
My mom valued empathy. If I complained about someone, we would discuss the other person’s point of view, possible motives, and family background. At times, it was excruciating. She understood perspective-taking before it was a psychological byword. We created possible backstories for others. Why did they act as they did? What was their motivation? For most of my childhood, I remember the process as acutely painful for me because I could not simply be angry or unforgiving or judgmental. My mother expected that I examine such actions and thoughts in light of the Other. On behalf of the Other, we weaved a story, and thereby gained empathy.
My dad, well, he loved movies and television shows, and he seldom passed up an opportunity to evaluate them with us. We never had multiple televisions in our home. Our one tv was always in the living room, and everyone had to agree on one thing to watch. That usually meant we all “agreed” to watch Dad’s favorite shows. The viewing never resembled mindless or passive absorption. Instead we discussed the plot, characters, and worldviews, and these discussions occasionally lasted longer than the show had. It is hard to say which my dad continues to like more—viewing or discussing. Both are still frequent family pastimes.
Both my parents love to tell a good story from our family history. Some of these are repeated again and again. There’s the time my dad parachuted out of a plane, and now his feet hurt anytime he stands on anything of great height. My mom tells about leaving for college with no idea what to do next but that she had to be different than what she had known. My extended family pitches in stories regularly during meals and holiday gatherings. At such times, my granddad retells the hits and plays from his high school football days. My grandmother reminisces about her childhood and her years as a secretary at a local university. My uncle adds fabrications to some of his stories, and we note how the stories “grow” through the years. Story after story, retold through new family members, exaggerated for effect, and incorporated into the ups and downs of existence, each describing a part of a life lived imperfectly but together.
Does all this talking make up for not reading aloud to your kids? Well, intellectually, that is up for debate. For example, a recent study analyzing vocabulary in conversations and in picture books revealed that reading aloud, even from picture books, requires the use of more uncommon words. Conversation eliminates the need for precise vocabulary. We can point, makes facial gestures, and use confusing pronoun references, and thereby create context and richness that often substitutes for more elaborate vocabulary. We write and read words that simply do not enter our everyday conversations even amongst the well-educated. On the other hand, much of the studies on conversations in the family, especially at dinner time, lead us to believe that at least as much can be accomplished cognitively during during family conversation time as during reading time.
And when it comes to empathy, emotions, and compassion a whole other analysis emerges. Yes, books, especially fiction, can indeed help us become more empathetic and effective human beings, but telling our stories in a family setting accomplishes that and even more. Storytelling allows children to create their own stories, gives them a stronger sense of self, and creates more coping skills. A study on intergenerational storytelling sums it up this way, “Adolescents who tell intergenerational narratives that are rich in intergenerational connections and perspective-taking show higher levels of well-being. These findings suggest that individual narrative selves are created within families and across generations.” In a way that is obvious. We need the stories of our loved ones to find a place and to make our own story. It is the wisdom of the ages.
And so why a post about reading and storytelling? Well, there is this middle class angst about our kids and their intellectual development. Did I read to them enough? Did I give them enough hands-on experiences? Did I talk to them enough? Did I this? Did I that? And, on and on it goes. It’s utterly ridiculous.
My parents did not read to me. I graduated (with a few fits and starts) summa cum laude with a degree in Political Science. My first paper at UTA earned an ‘A’ from one of the most difficult professors in my department, and he said, “You know, usually only grad students use this many sources on a paper.” I have held a steady job as a teacher for the past 12 years. My sister holds a masters degree and also works in the education field. I mean, really, was it all that important that my parents didn’t read to us? They talked to us, and they loved us. Ignorance turned out to be more than bliss.
The Thou Shalt Read command is only one of the creeds in today’s parenting orthodoxy I could have addressed. What of the others? Never: yell, use sarcasm, give ultimatums, etc. Always: affirm feelings, show patience, etc. Have you seen one of these perfect parents? Instead, we pretend we never do any of the horrible things and always do the good stuff, and then we feign shock when others honestly parent as best as they can right in front of our very eyes. The hypocrisy is thick and burdensome.
We need a way to distinguish the contemporary obsessions from the timeless truths of parenting. At some point, I’ve come to believe that wisdom and science only meet from time to time. It’s not that the two are incompatible, but I think I will err on the side of wisdom. Talk and eat and love. Isn’t that difficult enough?