My mother is a writer, and as a small child, I would wander into her office and look through the magazines scattered across her desk. I remember wondering why the magazines were called The Horn Book, because they didn’t seem to be about horns, and also why they had the neat covers, even though the inside was filled with what seemed to a five year old to be lots of boring writing. It’s pretty great to finally see what all the fuss is about.
It’s a special honor to speak with adults who are as committed as I am to bringing books and children together. I am a mother and have been a daycare provider and a middle-school teacher…and I can tell you that the most magical moments I have experienced with children have been with books.
We all know how critical books are to the development of reading in a child. A good book and the joy it provides is often the reason a child is motivated to become a reader in the first place. Language is fun. Imagination is fun. And when a child experiences the joy of reading with a childcare provider or teacher, he or she is encouraged to take that next step and become a reader. And we all know that readers thrive, while non-readers fall behind in this world of the written word.
However, what I really want to remind you of is this: when you read with a child, you are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. You are doing a much more powerful thing, and it is something that we are losing, as a culture. By reading with a child, you are teaching that child to be human. When you open a book, and share your voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I will go further and say that that child learns to feel the world more deeply, and the child becomes more aware of himself and others in a way that he simply cannot experience except in your lap, or in your classroom, or in your reading circle.
When we read books with children, we share other worlds, yes, but more importantly, we share ourselves. Reading with children makes an intimate, human connection that teaches that child what it means to be alive as one of many live beings on the planet. We are teaching empathy. We are naming feelings, expressing experience, and demonstrating love and understanding…all in a safe environment. When we read a book with children, then children – no matter how stressed, no matter how challenged – are drawn out of themselves to bond with other human beings, and to see and feel the experiences of others.
I believe it is that moment that makes us human. In this sense, reading makes us human.
The world can be a scary place. It can be a scary place for adults, but it is often worse for children. Children experience homelessness, hunger, abuse, and neglect. They can’t get in a car and leave a situation that they find challenging or displeasing. They can’t choose their own lifestyles. Children have very little control over their own lives. Children have to go where they are told and do what they are told to do, often with no apparent justification. They feel powerless. And the truth is, they often are powerless.
So, how do we help those small, often powerless people to grow up to feel strong and confident in this crazy world? How are our children going to feel safe? This happens when we teach children to love themselves, and to understand that there are other people who love them, too. Children need to feel that they are part of a loving, empathetic unit.
A child with a strong emotional center doesn’t hurt other children. It is the damaged child, the wounded child, who lashes out. And a damaged, wounded child grows to be a damaged, wounded adult unless he learns to soothe himself and feel safe in this world.
There are people on the planet who are incapable of empathy. But for most of us, empathy is learned. We learn it as children. Empathy is what keeps us from hurting each other on the playground, from cutting each other off on the highway, and from committing acts of terror and horror on other human beings. When we understand what makes us function, we can understand other people. When we understand that no matter how badly we feel, someone else may be feeling badly, too, we are able to step back and care for others. That is what living in a society is all about.
So, you are saying to yourselves: that’s a big job! And yes, it is. We teachers and caregivers can’t do all of it; parents have to do it, too. Society must also do it. But we can do our part, and here’s a really good way to go about it:
Sit down, put a child on your lap, and read a story. Have fun. Read in character. Use funny voices. Ask questions. Laugh and cry. Be human and be strong, and that will allow the children in your care to be human and be strong. And, they will also learn how to read.