When my oldest son turned ten, he told me he now wanted his privacy during bath time.
This, of course, is a normal part of growing up; children like the presence of their parents, the stability they can offer in the moments of a day when they are young—and then one day they no longer need us. But I was not quite ready.
For the last seven years I had sat in the bathroom while he bathed and I read a book aloud, just him and me. We read fun books together—The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, The Westing Game. We read serious books: Chicken Boy, Home of the Brave, Brown Girl Dreaming. We read biographies—George Lucas, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou. We read novels in verse, graphic novels, short novels, long novels, all the ones in between. We laughed, we cried, we talked, we wondered, we connected.
We connected. This is what reading aloud to kids—no matter how old they are—does: it connects us.
This bathing time was not the only time my son and I read together, so though it was a difficult time to surrender (because a mother has difficulty surrendering at every stage), it was also not so difficult. In my home, I read stories to my sons in the morning, during their lunch (I have only one who is not in school now, so this has become a precious time with him), and before they go to bed. We read picture books, joke books, magazines, newspapers, poetry. Lots of poetry. Sometimes we read around our dinner table (it helps kids stay put at the table). We are always working on a chapter book I read aloud to the entire family—sometimes two if it’s summertime. (Current reads are the latest Incorrigible Children book and Chicken Boy, again.)
One of the earliest pictures my husband took of my first son and me is one where I am stretched out on the floor, reading to him from a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry. This is not intended to be a self-congratulatory admission; it is only to say that the structure of read-aloud time is built one day at a time. We all start somewhere; for me that starting place was on the floor, with my infant, reading poetry I could almost recite by heart, so loved is it.
Reading aloud to children has multiple benefits. For very young children, it familiarizes them with the pattern of language and encourages speech. For children who are emerging readers, reading aloud introduces them to the random letters that turn into words that pave the way for reading proficiency. As children get older, reading aloud to them builds their vocabulary and their interest in stories—which leads to a lifelong love.
But the most important value that reading loud offers is its connection.
When my twins were newly born, they spent twenty excruciating days in the neonatal intensive care unit. They were perfectly healthy with a good set of lungs; it was hospital procedure, however, to keep premature babies in NICU to ensure they knew how to eat and would flourish in the first weeks of life. During that time, when I was allowed only pockets of visitation, I brought bags of books and read them to my babies, silently urging them to eat so that I could bring them home.
We connected, in those first weeks of their lives, through touch, through nourishment, through stories.
Yes, some might be thinking—but they were babies. What happens when your children are older—ten, say, or fourteen, or eighteen?
My answer is always the same: Kids don’t grow out of read-aloud time.
There are days in my life that fly by with hardly a notice. I am not alone in this; our lives roll on at a staggering pace. Carving out reading aloud time allows families—parents and children—to press pause, to take a breath, to connect again. And those threads of connection weave all throughout our lives. They are everlasting threads.
My oldest son is now eleven. He is about to embark on a new journey, heading into middle school, navigating puberty, experimenting with who he wants to be. He needs connection now more than ever.
The other night, after an explosive argument on all sides (strong wills are abundant in my home), my son let himself into my bedroom, plopped down on my bed beside me, and said, “Mama will you read to me? I just need someone to read to me.”
And what could I do but say yes?
Rachel Toalson is an author, essayist, and poet who regularly contributes to adult and children’s print and online publications around the world. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and six boys. The Colors of the Rain is her first traditionally published novel. You can visit her online at www.rltoalson.com.