Don’t Stop Reading to Your Kids

Even when they’re avidly reading on their own

Family of four reading together on a couch

I’ve always been a reader. When my kids were born, I looked forward to sharing books I’ve loved with them. Of course, what we read to little kids are mostly, well, little-kid books—not the books we love. And, by the time kids are in school and (hopefully) reading on their own, it’s easy for parents to be sidelined. This is all playing out against a precipitous plunge in the amount of time we spend reading for fun.

So today, I want to talk about reading to our kids. My kids are 10 and seven now, and I still have a fine time reading to them. Right now, we’re well along in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The great thing is they like it as much as I do—at least they’ll pester me to read during breakfast, before dinner, or at bedtime. It’s awesome.

It’s also not that common. A 2019 survey reported that one-fifth of kids aged nine to 11 are read to regularly. And even that feels like an overestimate. Because while we may not have great data on this, I’ve spent years quietly tallying the friendly (but quizzical) reactions we get when I’m seen quietly reading to the kids in public. There are genial questions and the kinds of huzzahs you’d expect for doing something actually remarkable. It doesn’t feel like a one-in-five deal.

And that’s a shame. There are few things I’m certain about when it comes to education. But one is that it’d be good if many more parents and kids thought it normal to grab their book-of-the-moment to read when heading out for a family dinner or a long family car ride. For much of human history, the rite of telling or reading stories was a familiar source of bonding and connectedness. But it’s not today.

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Obviously, most kids can read to themselves by the time they’re eight or nine. Given that, it can feel pointless for parents to read to them. Kids may also perceive a sit-down read-aloud as infantilizing or intrusive. (Do you really expect me to sit here and concentrate on this story for fifteen minutes?) And, of course, the tyranny of devices means that many kids (and parents) don’t spend a lot of time reading books, a pursuit that can feel old-fashioned when there are e-games to play and social media accounts to scroll through.

I get all of this. I do. But family reading has a lot of perks that aren’t always fully understood.

For starters, part of the appeal of gaming and social media is that they’re dynamic, interactive, and social. Reading a paperback can feel like a primitive, slow-mo, 1.0 version of self-amusement compared to the hopped-up options available. Meanwhile, hearing a story read aloud requires kids to listen and focus—this can all seem very old school. But what can get overlooked is that reading to kids adds that interactive, social dimension. Kids interrupt, ask questions, and chatter about who’s the villain and what might happen next. It makes reading feel warmer and more connective.

I’m also struck by how much kids miss when they read on their own. This was something I felt intensely back when I taught high school social studies. In various units, I’d give my high schoolers four-page snippets from Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, Federalist 10, the Declaration of Independence, or the like. I’d wander around the room, quietly asking questions, and they’d assure me that they were getting it. Then we’d discuss the readings as a class, and it was obvious that 95 percent of them had no clue what they’d just read. So, we’d then take a day as a whole group to reread it closely, clause by clause, until they actually got it.

My kids will blast through books (Magic Treehouse or City Spies or Phantom Tollbooth or Great Brain or whatever), and it’s frequently clear they’ve absorbed little, skimmed unfamiliar vocabulary, or missed a big chunk of the story. Turning pages is not the same as reading. But reading together builds in a chance to rephrase, emphasize, and help the cool stuff land—so they’re not just churning through pages.

So, why isn’t family reading more common, especially among parents who lament the amount of time their kids spend on screens or wish their kids had more affinity for reading? It’s a great question.

I mentioned the awkwardness of reading to kids who are fully capable of reading on their own. Parents may even fret that reading aloud will slow a child’s development as a reader and convince themselves that, if a kid can read alone, they should. But reading a book and hearing a book are different things. They develop the brain in different ways. They’re both good. Why choose? When my oldest turned seven or so, there was a stretch when he asked if he could read by himself at bedtime. I said that he reads a lot, which is great, but that bedtime was for family reading. He complained a bit and then forgot about it.

Look, if you’re not used to reading aloud, it can initially seem off-putting to wade through paragraphs of exposition or to struggle with accents or intonation. (I’m famously awful at accents and impressions.) Sometimes, I’ll read a sentence, realize I phrased it wrong or articulated it clunkily, and have to back up. But the audience is remarkably forgiving.

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Some parents say they don’t have the time for this sort of thing. That’s fair. But I also know plenty of families who spend evenings all at home together, just on various devices. If that’s the deal, it’s not really about the time. It’s about priorities and routines.

It can also seem daunting to find a book that suits kids of different ages and interests. I get that. My youngest dug Narnia but tuned out as we slogged through Susan Cooper’s slow-moving, five-book Dark Is Rising series. At a certain point, I just finished reading the last couple books with my oldest while my wife and youngest read separately. There’s a crapshoot element. But reading to your kids over time builds momentum. Even if they are skeptical about a book at the beginning, there’s something special about the experience of reading together.

Now, I’d never suggest that family reading should displace kids’ reading alone. But it can be a gateway for kids who aren’t readers and a fun change of pace for those who are. If making enough time for personal reading and family reading means curtailing the time kids spend on devices or watching Netflix . . . well, good. Avid readers tend to think of reading as a solitary act. That’s certainly been my experience. And that’s great. We all need our escapes. But that view of reading can make books feel like a solitary respite rather than a shared escape. And there’s no reason they need to be one or the other. They can be both.

Will there be a point at which I stop reading to my kids? Sure. But for now, my 10-year-old is still wholly on board. I’m hoping that’ll still be true in a year or two. We’ll see. I’ll tell you this, though: I’m glad I haven’t stopped yet.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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