There is an oft-cited saying in my family: two Jews, three opinions. Something similar could be said about parenting – everyone has an opinion,* and they often vary widely. But there is one topic with near-universal agreement: one of the best things you can do for your child is read aloud to them. Brain development, fostering a love of reading and learning, and familial bonding are just a few of the many benefits cited by organizations like this one, which advocates that all parents commit to doing it for just 15 minutes a day.
My husband and I began reading aloud to our firstborn when he was in utero. When my friends asked if they could throw me a baby shower, I suggested that everyone bring their favorite children’s book to help us build our library. I’ve always adored children’s literature. Some of my strongest memories from growing up are of exploring my favorites on the lap of a beloved adult and of visiting my local library where the warm and generous librarians would introduce me weekly to their current favorites. (Two of those librarians are still there and now do the same for my son when his grandma takes him).
When Charlie was born, bedtime was a two parent, one child ritual. Each night, we’d read him the same three books as he nursed (establish the sleeping cues!), as well as countless others throughout the day. He was a bibliophile from the very beginning. Sharp photos, bright illustrations, or scenes sewed together from pieces of felt. Suspense or humor. Rhyming words. Repetition. He loved it all.
We even heard him utter his first word over a book, as he pointed to a page in Chugga Chugga, Choo Choo, and said, “dah” (dog). One evening when he was about a year old, he unpacked the entire book bin in the playroom, scattering volumes of all sizes and shapes across the floor. Our pride in raising a booklover quelled our guilt of missing that night’s much-needed bath.
Everything is different the second time around. Everything. Between taking care of a new baby and a four-year-old, juggling our jobs, and attempting to manage the routines of life, we found ourselves with little time to read aloud to Elinor. Bedtime became a one-parent-per-child event. Or we’d all pile onto our bed together, one of us attempting to contain Elinor’s endlessly squirming body while the other read Charlie The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore or The Day Louis Got Eaten. I tried to quell my new guilt by telling myself that surely this shared bedtime story ritual must be better than no ritual at all.
But in reality, I started to worry that my neglect would result in an anomaly in our family – someone with little interest in books.
This only escalated as she grew older – and stronger. When we would make time to read exclusively to Elinor, she was totally unwilling to be held. Only Baby Giggles or Global Baby Girls could hold her attention for short spans. (Maybe she loved babies, but not books?) Had we failed to instill in her a love of literacy before she developed a love of mobility?
And then one morning in April as I went in to wish her good morning, everything changed. All it took was a simple gesture, accompanied by a single sound.
Standing at the rail of her crib, Elinor emphatically reached toward the nearby shelf and proclaimed, “buh.” Book! Delighted when I handed one to her, she repeated the word. Again and again. All morning, in fact. Several nights later, she awoke around 3 a.m. ready to begin her day. Once again, she reached for the bookshelf and made an audible request. What the hell, I thought. I handed her a book and blearily made my way back to bed. Several hours later, I found her sleeping soundly, the book by her side.
So now I’m the mother of two bibliophiles. When he’s in the mood, the five-year-old reads his bedtime stories to us, or to his little sister. And whether it’s a library book Charlie has picked out for her, one that my grandparents gifted to me on Thanksgiving in 1981, or one about baby farm animals, Elinor sits on my lap, listening to the words and pointing to the pictures.
I’m willing to bet a missed bath is in our future any day now.
(*Frankly, something similar could be said about Librettists.)