For as long as I can remember, but certainly from the time my once infant son could shimmy himself into a seated position (without toppling over), I read books aloud to him. The vibrant illustrations and rhyming words of those early books provided me with an opportunity to teach the foundational elements of early literacy. Lacking a degree in early childhood education, I could rely on books to help teach my son the alphabet, the names of everyday objects, and the colors of the rainbow.
Now nearing the end of his tenure at our local elementary school, my son is eleven years old. Like many of his peers, he is a good reader, fully capable of reading books independently. He loved the Percy Jackson series and laughed out loud while reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
Several of my friends also have children nearing middle school and in their homes, parental reading aloud is no longer a daily ritual. I assume these friends have witnessed their children reading independently and perhaps felt it was time to retire the reading aloud tradition. But I would argue that choosing to read aloud to your older children has less to do with literacy, and everything to do with building character and empathy.
I probably spend an inordinate amount of time pondering what kind of kid I am raising. Is he kind? Does he find ways to make the world a better place? Is he accepting of those who are different from him? In short, is he an individual of character, capable of expressing empathy? I fully acknowledge that many adults would have a hard time answering these weighty questions. I also realize that character traits like leadership, self-confidence, and perseverance are difficult to teach.
As a parent, I wonder how my child will respond when confronted with hate, greed, or a seemingly insurmountable challenge. While I do my best to discuss these scenarios with him, I’m sure my lectures are lacking in the “excitement” department. But thanks to a plethora of literary characters ranging from Anne Frank to Frodo Baggins, my child can be faced with hatred, violence, bullying, and an unkind world and have concrete examples of how characters, real or imaginary, addressed these challenges. Through books, he can hear true-to-life examples of character. Through books, he can build an empathetic spirit.
I can’t say how my son will respond when his courage is tested; and I struggle with how to adequately teach the concept of courage. Therefore, I turn to books. Several months ago, I read aloud the Young Readers version of I am Malala. Through the pages of this nonfiction title, my son was transported to a part of the world where girls are banned from getting an education and people resort to deadly violence in order to silence those who oppose this tradition. Through this book, we had thoughtful discussions about gender inequality and oppressive groups – and together we talked about what it means to have courage.
Finding time to read aloud can be a challenge in our over-scheduled and busy world. In those instances, I turn to books on CD. For my family, the summer months provide ample opportunity for listening to books with captivating narratives while running mundane errands or driving to summer camp. Once the car starts, handheld devices are put away and we are transported on adventures set on the high seas (The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle), aboard a steam train traveling across Canada (The Boundless), or in 1930s rural America (Moon Over Manifest). Last summer, my son and I had the great pleasure of listening to the fiction title Wonder on CD. While driving the suburban streets, we experienced the joy and heartbreak of the main character, seen through the eyes of various narrators, as he struggled to navigate a new school with a facial difference. The book provided countless opportunities to discuss friendship, bullying, and acceptance.
As a parent, I am keenly aware that I cannot prepare my son for every difficult challenge that will befall him. I also fully expect him to have errors in judgment or forget what it means to have empathy. But in those instances, I hope he remembers the host of literary characters whose stories he both loved and hated, and that he recalls the lessons learned from those books. But more than anything, I hope he remembers that his mother cared enough about his character to read those books to him.
Nora Earnest- Mother, Empathy Teacher