Bedtime Story

Jul 1, 2014, 10:33 AM, Posted by Jeff Meade

Sarah Meade reading a book. Sarah, having a read at Granny's house

The globby tears, the quavering voice, the pudgy outstretched hands, the plaintive word “please.” They all come to mind as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Our daughter Sarah was (and still is, at 27) a good soul, but like every small child, she had her moments. And when those “moments” more or less coincided with bedtime, the worst punishment we could mete out was to refuse to read her bedtime stories—or “sturries,” as she called them. We would kiss her good night, and adjourn to the living room, there to sit and look at each other guiltily as our little girl suffered the tortures of the damned.

We listened to that heartbreaking little plea, “But I HAVE to have sturries!” echoing down the hall, and our hearts would break, too. We felt like the worst parents ever

Our heads told us that discipline needed to be consistent. But in the end, our hearts always gave in. And so we would return to our comfy bedtime routine, which, I confess, we treasured as much as Sarah did. One of us would snuggle up next to Sarah’s warm, jammy-clad body, and read through her favorites: “Make Way for Ducklings.” “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” “Corduroy.” Of course, the timeless “Goodnight Moon.” And so many more.

We came to feel that we were on a first-name basis with Margaret Wise Brown, Robert McCloskey, Dr. Suess, Maurice Sendak, and all of the authors of all of the kid lit classics that lined Sarah’s book case.

We read to Sarah not because we were trying to home-grow a genius. On some level, yes, we knew that early literacy might give Sarah an intellectual leg up, but that was never the point. Reading is what we did because we were readers ourselves. Reading gave us great joy, still does, and that’s the gift we wanted to give our daughter.

And so, when Sarah began to read at age 3, we weren’t surprised. We were glad. We still remember our daughter sitting on what we called “Sarah’s Reading Rock” at day care, a book perched atop her knees, her face intent. That’s all we had ever wanted to do: raise a child who loved to read.

I thought about Sarah on her reading rock recently while perusing a story in The New York Times. The story described a new policy announced by the American Academy of Pediatrics that strongly recommends that primary care pediatricians urge parents to read aloud to their infants, toddlers and young children. (Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice)

What could reading to kids possibly have to do with child health? Well, read, if you will, the first sentence of the policy statement:

Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.

I’ll confess, the science supporting the value of reading to small children never occurred to Diane or me as we enthusiastically acted out all the parts of Janet and Alan Ahlberg’s drolly clever “The Jolly Postman.” But of course, it makes intuitive sense, and there is no shortage of research to back up the AAP’s claims. The policy statement alone includes 48 citations.

When we at RWJF talk about building a Culture of Health, we often speak of the big things, like health care coverage, a healthy weight for all children, violence prevention, and equal opportunity. But we’re not forgetting the little things. We always frame the discussion within a much broader context—in short, building a Culture of Health everywhere each person lives, works, and plays.

So thank you, pediatricians for driving home the critical importance of reading to wee ones. That message hits me where I live.

And hold fast to your beliefs, pediatricians, when parents—particularly new parents—express doubt that reading to a child as young as an infant has any value. If they want to know where to start, my first answer would probably be any appropriately aged kid’s book. Ask your local librarian for recommendations. But insist: Just read to your kids. Repeat daily, or even more often.

My second answer, drawn from the warm, loving, revelatory memories of my own early parenthood, might be more specific. I would start with Robert Louis Stevenson’s gently lulling poem, “The Moon.” It was one of Sarah’s first “sturries,” and one of my favorite “sturries,” too.

The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On streets and fields and harbour quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.

The squalling cat and the squeaking mouse,
The howling dog by the door of the house,
The bat that lies in bed at noon,
All love to be out by the light of the moon.

But all of the things that belong to the day
Cuddle to sleep to be out of her way;
And flowers and children close their eyes
Till up in the morning the sun shall arise.

Editor’s note: What was your little one’s favorite story? What was your favorite story? Share your thoughts in comments, below.