How often do you read to your children?
There are many benefits of reading aloud to your child, from the bonding that comes with cuddling close and listening to the sound of another person’s voice, to building their vocabulary, increasing their chances of academic success, and even improving their ability to empathize with others. Yet with over-packed schedules and the easy lure of television and video games, it can be hard to set aside time to read with your kid. It can even be hard to set aside time to read for yourself!
We can be tricked into thinking that watching television shows with a multitude of characters and convoluted plots is as intellectually beneficial and emotionally nourishing as reading a book, but that’s not the case. Neuroscience backs this up: studies have found that reading a word like “coffee” activates not just the language centers of our brains, but our sensory areas as well. Similarly, reading a sentence like “John kicked the ball” makes the regions associated with motor skills buzz with activity. It seems that the brain experiences reading about life in very much the same way that it experiences life itself. Novels and other works of fiction, which tend to have colorful metaphors and vivid language, are particularly great at exciting the brain.
What’s not so good? Reading online articles like this one. The Washington Post reports that scientists have found evidence that our fast-paced online culture is affecting our attention spans for reading books. We’re skimming more, rushing to get to the point or the punchline without absorbing or thinking actively about the content. Online we tend to not move our eyes from the top of the page to the bottom, instead we jump around in what’s called “nonlinear reading,” distracted by the text and images all around and the lure of clicking away to find a better article. What’s more, online articles favor short punchy sentences over longer, more complex ones, which may be dulling our brain’s ability to absorb complex thoughts over several lines of text.
So while there are lots of educational apps and games out there for kids to play with, nothing is better (for both them and you) than just sitting down with your children to read from a real book. A recent piece in The New York Times reminds us that we should be reading aloud to our kids from the earliest age, as the groundwork for success in school gets laid well before kids even head off to the classroom. Kids who grow up in poverty and don’t have access to many books, or have adults in their life without the time to read aloud or who value reading, are at an academic disadvantage to those who do.
Some of my warmest early childhood memories are of curling up on the sofa or couch to hear my parents read to me. This didn’t stop when I went off to school; my parents read aloud to me until almost middle school, at which point I was staying up late under the covers, racing ahead on my own in the novels that we were reading together. We also discussed plot points and characters, at least until I got to the age when I would rather keep my opinions to myself, or talk books with my book loving friends.
Don’t be misled into thinking that other forms of media are doing the same things for your mind and your children’s mind as books are. They’re not. Reading books is as fundamentally important as it’s always been, both for kids and adults. Read to them everyday. And set a powerful example for your children by carving out time for yourself to read a book each day as well. Consider it an opportunity to get away from a screen and be a human being.