I am very lucky. I own a company that sells Superpowers: the sort of powers that reside inside us all. So, basically, I get to celebrate the best of humankind on a daily basis. I am also lucky because my company, IAmElemental, affords me the opportunity to share my strongly held belief that “Literacy is the Ultimate Superpower.” So, today, on Read Across America Day, I want to share why reading is so important to me personally as well as professionally.
Typically defined as the ability to read and write, in the IAmElemental universe, we employ a broader definition. We define literacy as “acquired knowledge.” Anything that develops the body, mind, and spirit - and keeps the brain’s synapses firing on all cylinders - comes under our literacy umbrella. We want kids to love the act of learning. We want them to view knowledge acquisition as a lifelong pursuit, not just something that they do in school because it’s required of them. And we want kids to want to learn because it betters their lives and helps them accomplish their goals.
Read-Alouds: A Parent’s Secret Weapon
In my personal parenting universe, I have found that one of the best ways to help kids internalize the IAmElemental definition of literacy is through daily read-alouds. In fact, I consider reading aloud to be my Parenting Superpower. Furthermore, I suspect that it just might be the secret to parenting.
OK. OK. I know. There is no actual secret to parenting. Parenting is complicated. And, unlike business success, parenting success (whatever “success” means when it comes to parenting) is ephemeral and hard to quantify.
And, yet, there’s no denying the power of the read-aloud.
I started reading chapter books aloud to my firstborn son at bedtime when he was about three years old, because (if truth be told) I missed reading books. Parenting had robbed me of both time and energy. All I read were magazine articles. Who had time to commit to a whole book? But, then, I had an idea. I grabbed a beloved chapter book off my shelf and told my son that it was a “listening book.” I’d sit beside his bed in the dark with a flashlight and read a chapter a night (or until one of us dozed off - usually me).
Both of my boys quickly embraced the idea that it was possible to create images in their imagination while listening to a story. And, once they got used to read-alouds, I started carrying our latest chapter book around with me wherever we went. My boys are now 12 and (gulp) 20 and, to this day, I always have a book in my bag (currently: Wendelin van Draanen’s difficult yet uplifting Runaway). We read in taxis, in restaurants, in museums, in the park. We read whenever we are waiting in line, waiting in a theatre for a movie to start, waiting for the bus to arrive.
One of the first books that I read aloud to my eldest son was Roald Dahl’s sublime Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. About the same time, I happened to read an article about parenting that posited an interesting theory. It explained that, when it comes to the relationship between a parent and a child (and the child’s developing relationship with the outside world), everything comes down to attention. And that one key to successful parenting is teaching your child to desire and “ask” for good attention rather than bad attention.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provided the perfect language to help my son (and, later, his brother) internalize this message. At three years old, and for many years afterward, whenever he was asking for attention in the wrong way, I only needed to ask whether he wanted to be Veruka (...or Augustus ...or Mike Teevee) or Charlie, and he would say, “I want to be Charlie!” And he would make the better choice; the choice to ask for good attention.
However, reading aloud has gifted my family much more than just behavior modification opportunities.
Side Effects (The Good Kind)
* Reading aloud allowed me to introduce my boys to really good literature earlier than I would have been able to if I had waited until they could read classics on their own. As a result, they enjoy and appreciate good writing. To be clear, they also love graphic novels and toilet humor. In fact, my youngest son’s career goal is to run Mad Magazine someday, and I am thrilled. However, they are also not intimidated by the likes of Shakespeare and Homer. And I am thrilled.
* Reading aloud encourages natural, spontaneous learning. My boys have always been free to stop me whenever there is a word or a phrase that they don’t understand, or a concept that needs explaining. This has helped develop both their vocabulary and their ability to express themselves. But, even more important, because they have made a habit of it, my boys aren’t afraid to ask questions and admit that there is something they don’t know; an often underrated, but important life skill.
* Reading aloud has been wonderful for their comprehension skills. Because I have the ability to occasionally pause the story so that we can discuss big ideas or passages I think are important to ponder along the way, they have become adept at recognizing and understanding universal themes and concepts embedded in literature. As an added benefit, this ability has served them extremely well in school.
* Reading aloud has also afforded me the opportunity to introduce them to new topics and ideas that don’t necessarily fit into their already packed school curriculum. Our family recently honored the boys’ 95-year-old great-grandfather for his service in World War II. A gunner on the beaches of Normandy, he went on to fight in five other major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. In addition to history books about the war, I read the boys All the Light We Cannot See. This beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel had two likeable young protagonists: a blind French girl, and a German orphan recruited into a Hitler Youth Camp. My younger son found it hard to process the fact that he was rooting for Werner even though he knew that, in real life, the boy would have been tasked with hunting down and killing soldiers like his great-grandfather. Not only did my son learn a lot of history, he was reminded that, often, the answer to a difficult question is: Well, that depends.
* Reading aloud permits me to, sometimes, edit words and passages. I am passionately anti-censorship. However, when I read them Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I edited out the n-word. We talked about the word’s history and its meaning. I explained why Mark Twain used it. And I explained why I wasn’t going to use it.
* Reading aloud gives me license to feed my boys a hearty diet of books with female protagonists. While much is written about the lack of female representation in film and TV, there are amazing female-driven stories found throughout literature. I always said that I was going to read “girl power” books to my boys until they told me to stop; they never did. Early on, I instituted a three-chapter rule. I knew that if I got through three chapters before telling them the title of, for example, A Little Princess, I’d have them hooked. It worked like a charm.
* Reading aloud has taught my boys to be more empathetic. Every book that I read aloud reaffirms the existence of one basic truth: that there are an infinite number of ways to live a life. These books remain stored for eternity in their memory banks, helping them to make sense of who they are, and better understand the billions of people who co-exist alongside them in the world in which they live.
* Reading aloud is happy time spent together as a family creating a shared language. I recently reorganized our family bookshelves, and it felt as if I was sifting through my sons' brains. Yes, I mean that literally. As I sorted the books into piles according to type (picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, reference material, etc.) and subject (history, science, philosophy, fiction, biographies, humor, etc.) it was as if I was making my way through the data that makes up the sum of their parts; not only their brainpower, but also their very essence. I really and truly believe that reading aloud to my boys has played a huge role in helping grow them into good people and interesting human beings.
Finally, reading aloud is redemption.
I won’t lie, I have gone to bed every single night for 20 years worrying and wondering: “How horribly did I screw up my kids today?”
Because, I am the “bad cop” in the house, and I make no bones about it. Because, despite my fear of failure (and my actual, quantifiable failures), I have a job to do and I am going to do it. And, because, while I love my boys and I think that they are totally awesome, I recognize that we are - all of us - a work in progress until the day that we die.
But, read-alouds? Read-alouds are my savior. My secret weapon. The Superpower that helps me enjoy parenting even when I’m bad at it.No matter how busy... stressful... annoying... exhausting the day has been; no matter how many parenting lectures I have had to deliver; no matter how often we’ve rolled our eyes behind one another’s backs; no matter how many times they’ve pushed the “mute” button and tuned me out, we end every single day feeling connected and content. Together, in the dark, with a flashlight, I read. The words travel from my mouth to their ears embedded with a message of love. And I end the day feeling like, maybe not the best mom in the world, but certainly the luckiest.