You loved Goodnight Moon … the first 20 times. But you’re growing weary of the old lady, the brush, and the bowl full of mush. Your little one does not seem to share the sentiment. Despite a bookshelf of options, she breaks out the same story over and over (and over).
Why do kids gravitate towards, request, or even demand the same stories again and again? And what should we do as parents: follow their lead until we’re cross-eyed by the re-telling, or insist on breaking the cycle and expanding their storybook horizons?
Repeat to learn
Kids learn through repetition, so it’s not surprising that they tend to ask for the same books over and over — this is how their brains absorb the stories and language patterns within. In fact, a 2011 study of children’s language acquisition found that when kids were read the same book multiple times, they remembered and retained the meaning of a new word better than kids who read different books (all containing the same word). It’s likely that hearing the phrasing and structure of a story many times over helps children grasp and hold on to new vocabulary. It’s also exciting for your child to learn a book so well that she knows what’s coming and can anticipate or even repeat and chime in with the words — the same way we all love being able to know what’s coming and sing the words to a favorite song.
Repetition actually changes the brain: every time we practice a word, concept, or skill, neurochemicals are released and pathways between brain cells are strengthened and solidified. So when your toddler puts an old favorite in your lap and hunkers down to hear it for the hundredth time, she’s not just being particular — she’s exercising a built-in learning strategy that supports her growing mind.
Repeat for comfort
Little children are creatures of habit. It’s a principle that holds true not just for reading, but for other aspects of life too. The same fishy cup for lunch, the same walking route to the park … kids look for patterns and regularity to help them figure out how the world works, and they find comfort and security in rituals. This is especially important for younger kids, who are little scientists and feel reassured when they can predict what’s ahead.
Reading the same book over and over is soothing to your child, which is one of the reasons it’s a great activity as part of bedtime routine. Just as with other aspects of the evening pre-bed line up — like a bath or a bottle of milk — hearing the words of a familiar book helps your child settle in and relax, and it makes a great cue for sleep. Toddlers and preschoolers can be particularly repetitive in their reading taste, but even older kids who read on their own sometimes revisit favorites over and over.
Repeat, and expand
Since reading the same books incessantly is developmentally appropriate (just bring the topic up with other parents of young kids for verification), it’s a good idea to follow your child’s lead and let her drag out the old lady in the rocking chair yet again. Especially when a particular book has become part of a sleep routine or some other transition point during the day (for example, if you read your preschooler a book every day at morning drop off), it’s best to just give in to the monotony.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t open up other possibilities as well. For example, before bed, set up the agreement that you read three books: two that your child chooses and one that you choose. This way you can put a book in the rotation that you enjoy reading. Don’t let this activity become mind-numbing for you — so much so that you’re on autopilot, waiting for the end. The more fun you have reading to your child, the more likely you are to do it frequently and with enthusiasm.
Make a plan with your child that respects her need for repeating tales, but also lights up your own excitement (since she’s cueing off of you as well) — that way you can both look forward to snuggling in and cracking a book together.