I can’t really remember being read to as a young child. But I’m sure it happened, because when I became a father I discovered that some picture books would make me emotional. I’d be reading to my daughter, and all of a sudden find that my voice was choking up and my eyes were tearing. And it wasn’t because the stories were especially sad. It happened with The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, and with Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, and with lots of other books, too. It was actually a little irritating.
This annoyance taught me something important. I didn’t have a clear memory of having been read these stories, but I had an emotional memory that came back as soon as I started reading to my own child. And, despite the minor irritation of sometimes finding myself teary-eyed, I kept reading and reading. Finally, sometime around the middle of High School, my daughter told me, politely, that she was too busy with her own reading to listen to me read aloud. And by then, of course, I’d passed on the gift—that is, the love of stories, pictures, and books -- and probably also the annoying emotional baggage, too. We’ll see, I suppose, if my daughter ever has a child of her own.
Since I’ve spent a lot of my professional life urging parents to read to their young children, and urging other doctors to urge parents to read aloud, I often get asked, Is reading aloud necessary? What if some parents don’t read aloud at all? Are their children doomed to never love books? Of course, this isn’t so. There are people who never saw a children’s book, who discover literacy later in life, and fall in love. There are people who come to a love of books and reading through storytelling, or drama, or the natural world, or athletics. Any deeply felt interest can lead to a love of reading, although this doesn’t always happen.
Of course, everyone knows that adults need to be able to read well in order to graduate from college and make a good living; that’s the hard economic truth for most wage-earners in the 21st century. But what I’m talking about is the love of literature that contributes to the experience of living, not just the means of staying alive. If you are lucky enough to have acquired that love, by all means pass it along. If you love doing something else – cooking, dancing, playing the piano – be sure to pass that on to your child. It may yet lead to a love of reading (my wife reads the sports pages every day; her dad read the sports pages.) Or it may lead to a love of cooking, dancing, or music, all things that make life worth living.
One day I was talking with the mother of a bright two year-old girl about reading. “Well, Dr. Needlman,” she confessed, “Of course, I do read books to her, but what we really like to do is sing. We sing every day. We love it!” And, sure enough, that girl is now a singer. And a reader.
Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P. is the co-founder of Reach Out and Read and has published studies on early literacy promotion. He is also a member of the Mom Congress Advisory Board. Mom Congress delegates will remember him from his moving presentation at the 2011 Mom Congress on Education and Learning conference.