“Don’t read another chapter, mom!” My seven-year-old anxiously said as she looked at the few pages left in the book we were reading together as a family. “I don’t want to finish it too fast!” As we chatted about our book that we were enjoying reading together, it became clear how much she loved this book time together. During a time with a lot of change due to my health issues, reading together has become even more of a center to our family. This book had become a friend that had given us a gentle reprieve from those changes for many days. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that friend quite yet.
The togetherness and stability that reading gave us as a family is a beautiful thing in both hard and good times. More, reading with your spouse and your children gives you important bonding time that offers many benefits. Having a good relationship as a family isn’t simple, but I have no doubt that reading together as a family can only offer benefits
Reading together is joyful work
Let’s be clear: If you imagine that we gather peacefully around a beautiful book with a warm fire in front of us in a Thomas Kinkade house, with children quiet with rapt interest, you are so wrong!
Sometimes reading to my kids can be frustrating. They don’t seem to be listening. They bicker or interrupt. The toddler has a meltdown, and everyone needs to use the restroom halfway through the chapter. At least some of the time, reading as a family can be a real test of patience.
Reading together as a family has given us so much joy and has helped bond us together. But don’t jump into it thinking it’s always easy or fun. Sometimes there is a little work involved in getting everyone settled into the rhythm.
Reading Builds Intimacy
Because books can help us learn and think in new ways, it’s a powerful journey to take together with family. The very act of reading to someone builds intimacy and bonding. NICU parents bond, for example, when reading to their newborn. It can be hard to bond when your newborn is whisked away after birth because of health issues. The normal avenues for bonding (skin-to-skin and breastfeeding) aren’t always available in the same way. So reading to your child during the NICU stay was introduced and it worked!
“Reading to babies in the NICU can help parents develop the same feelings of intimacy that parents of healthy newborns cultivate in the days and weeks after a baby’s birth.” Read more here.
But this isn’t just about your kids. Couples who read the same books (whether together, or separately but at the same time) also benefit.
“There are many benefits to couples reading the same books,” says Francine Lederer, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “Firstly, they are dedicating time toward relationship building. Putting forth ‘special’ time in your relationship to read and talk about books can be a bonding experience emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Also, a relationship is much more likely to be successful and long lasting when couples share common interests and hobbies.” Read more here.
It’s not only bonding because it’s time set aside to spend together, but it also builds “common interests” within the family and helps you grow in the same direction. How this can translate is robust conversations within the family about a book you are reading together (fiction or nonfiction), shared storylines you can refer to as a family, and even inside jokes and commentary.
While the simple act of reading together builds bonding and doesn’t need or require any further benefits, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Let me flesh that out more with our experience.
Reading Together Gives you Something to Talk About
While we are a talkative family, we do run out of topics of conversation (especially since our kids are still relatively young). By having a chapter book that we are reading together, we have an excellent topic of discussion ready. We don’t make this complicated, and we certainly don’t discuss the book every time we read it, but we will ask simple questions to draw our children out on what they think about the book or a specific person or action in the book. It sometimes leads to great conversations about whether a character in the book made a good choice or not, or how to understand them.
Good conversations within families don’t happen on their own. You have to make them happen, and reading books together is one of the best ways I know how to cultivate them.
Reading Together Helps You Grapple with Hard Topics Together
The last several years I’ve spent a lot of time reading books to my kids about American history. History gives you a lot to grapple with – even books geared towards children. There are so many amazing discoveries, sacrificial and heroic actions, deep love and devotion, and devastating actions in history. I found that reading books about specific time periods and events allowed us to have surprisingly deep conversations considering the ages of my two oldest children. All of those discussions, at root, question us about what we value, how we should think about people in history who made good choices, but also bad choices, and how we should view ourselves.
These conversations happened naturally in the course of many hours of reading. They weren’t long conversations, and were scattered throughout our weeks of reading. But the sum reward of those bits and pieces of conversations was not only bonding, but a shaping of my children’s minds and a growth together as a family in how we think.
My husband and I have not had the opportunity to read as many serious books together as we would have liked (my husband has been in seminary and had a lot of required reading to get through – especially considering he was working full time). But we do spend a lot of time talking about what we are reading. It allows us to draw the other person into our thoughts on new ideas and old and dear truths. It allows us to continue to grow together, not apart.
Reading Together is Comforting
Reading allows us as a family to set aside discomfort, stress, or illnesses and enjoy something together. This is true whether it’s me pulling out Mr. Putter and Tabby books for my youngest when she is struggling with a cold, or my husband reading me to sleep during a stressful time.
About four years ago I was facing a very stressful situation that was provoking anxiety and insomnia. My husband and I had never read the Harry Potter series, and so instead of wrestling with sleep every night, my husband read the series out loud to me until my mind could settle down and I could go to sleep. We surprised ourselves by falling in love with the series, but it is also one of my most treasured memories with my husband. Although that was a hard time, reading this series out loud gave us a fun, bonding routine as a couple during a stressful period.
Builds Inside Jokes and Family Understanding
A side benefit to sharing stories together is that it gives your family storylines to refer to in shorthand. A couple of silly examples:
- As we were driving through a snowy forest, “Wow! I feel like we are in Narnia!” (A reference to the Narnia in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis).
- Me to my husband when overwhelmed with household chores: “I really, really need you to hire Jeeves for me” (A reference to the book series, Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse)
- Me teasing a child who was on the grumpy side, “Uh oh! I think you need to play the Glad Game!” (A reference to Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter).
None of these references would make sense except that we had the shared experience of reading those books. More, each reference is linked to a complete storyline that makes the allusion rich with meaning.
This is what gives further bonding to our family. All of those stories that we have shared can be referenced and understood by us as we go out into the world. It gives us common ground to refer to when facing obstacles, bullies, life-changes, and more.
On the practical side, this is what has helped us.
- First, we keep it simple, and we don’t try to find an extra hour somewhere to read. We read during our dinner time. My husband and I take turns reading. The kids can continue to eat, and get seconds, or stay at the table while we read. (And yes, there are some interruptions that happen because we read during dinner).
- It’s helpful to find chapter books that don’t have long chapters. If the chapter drags on a long time, it can be hard to read together as a routine (you can stop in the middle of the chapter, but it’s a little disorientating).
- Don’t be too ambitious with your choices! I think it’s wonderful to read classics together, but don’t read so far above your children’s age level that they can’t enjoy or understand the story. You need to teach your kids that book time is fun before you inspire them to lofty book goals.
- One of the most enjoyable books I read out loud to my two older kids were the Tintin books! It doesn’t need to be serious, history books all the time.
- I’ve also found reading some of our favorite board books a helpful way to connect with, or calm down a grumpy toddler. She almost always leaves book time happier. To meet her needs, sometimes we read her a story or two before we start our chapter.
I’d love to hear from you! What has reading together as a family done for you? Or with your spouse? And what are your favorite read-out-loud books?