My husband, Mr. Mad Scientist, is a fantastic and dedicated father. He has a very demanding job, but he always makes time for his boys. It is very important for him to build relationships with each of his sons, and that looks different with each child. The one thing that he does to build strong relationships with all of his children is to read with them. He has such an amazing reading bond with the kids, and he takes his reading VERY seriously.
When I heard about the #DadsRead campaign that was created by ZooBean and the Good Men Project to highlight the importance of fathers in supporting the literacy development of their children, I knew I had to ask the Mad Scientist to get involved. I asked him if he would like to participate, and he stayed up (very) late that very night to write out his thoughts about reading with his children. It was amazing to me that he had given so much thought to his reading, and it brings me practically to tears when I think about how much reading together means to all of my boys (including the big one).
What follows is what he wrote in response to my questions to him about how he felt about reading to his kids, and why it was important that HE read too. The words, thoughts, and comedy bits are all his. I hope you enjoy…
If you are a dad like me, you are constantly looking for ways to spend meaningful ‘quality time’ with your kids. But with no time for bear wrestling or building log cabins from Canadian white pine, what’s a busy dad to do? Admittedly, I don’t fish, any power tool in my hands is a dangerous weapon, and I am still waiting to see the Cowboys vs. the Indians compete in the “Summer Classic.” And, after all, how many rounds of “Hi-Ho-Cherrio” can you play before both you and your kids ask, “Is this really fun for the whole family?” The answer, my friend – believe it or not- is READING. I am not talking about flipping through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated or looking at the Surgeon General’s warning label on that bottle of beer. I am talking about BOOKS. Now, before you say reading is for librarians, nerds, home school moms, or Nobel Laureates, I’d like for you to consider my experience.
I am a highly educated male with several advance degrees, which is only important for you to know because I have built my entire career on reading. As a (admittedly introverted) teen, I spent hours alone in my room reading Tolkein, Asimov, and Clarke. As a high school and college student, I dutifully read Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, and Dickens (and secretly enjoyed it). In my professional training, I did nothing but read textbooks and journal publications. Ironically, I am not a terribly proficient reader. My skill with a novel is only slightly better than that with a miter saw or a golf club. But- I love to read. Unfortunately, as a ‘grown up’ with career and family responsibilities, I have little time for recreational adult reading anymore. Also, because of my middle aged, and deteriorating eyesight, whenever I do have time to read a novel, it is usually an eBook on some mobile device at that font setting (I think it is 72) where you get only four words per screen page. (And you can imagine how long it takes to get through a 500-page novel at that rate). The incredibly satisfying solution for me has been recreational reading with my kids; enjoying reading vicariously through children’s literature.
For example, while I have many fond memories of the times that my now 17 year old son and I spent together at little league baseball games, summers at the beach, and pizza/bowling birthday parties, none of those will compare to the evenings that we spent together before bedtime, month after month, reading the Series of Unfortunate Events or Harry Potter novels together in the comfy chair. Now that I have a six-year-old and twin two-year-old boys who are eager to read, I am absolutely giddy at the prospect of being able to do this all over again. To be certain, like all good parenting, reading to your children on a regular basis is an effort, but- good news- it is probably easier than changing a diaper or scraping the mac and cheese off of the dining room floor. Here are a few tips I have for you on how dads can make reading with their kids an enjoyable, daily ‘sporting event.’
- Select your material judiciously. If you just grab the latest release from Scholastic Book-of-the-Month club as a read aloud, you (and your kids) are likely to become bored with reading. Personally, I think it will even dull your brain. Spend some late night hours (as I am doing right now) looking for the perfect read- yes, they do exist. Of course, the material you select will depend upon the age and interest of your children, and may be different for each child- because, yes, they really are special snowflakes. Fortunately, compared to even a decade ago, there are a plethora of budding children’s authors who are writing smart and captivating books that resonate with children of all ages. These books offer subtle, often humorous and visual appeal to the adults that are reading them. At all costs, avoid those books that are based on (i.e. marketed for) commercial franchises (like Disney) or television shows. These are usually the books for which your local library (or this may just be our local library) has hundreds of copies proudly on display, and are featured prominently at school book fairs. These books have immediate, but not long lasting kid-appeal. “Easy / Early Readers” have their place too I guess (so the experts tell me), but unless for some unfortunate reason, you yourself are an easy or early reader, avoid these. Look for award winning books (unlike the Oscars, children’s literary critics seem to know what they are talking about). You can be safe with some real ‘stand out’ authors – Mo Willems, Judith Viorst, Elisha Cooper, Sherri Duskey, and Jonathan London are some of the current favorites for my six-year-old boy. But remember, just because an author hasn’t written a 27-book series doesn’t mean that they haven’t penned a classic. Even more importantly, find something that will be fun for you and your kids to read. Look for interesting art work, creative but simple narrative, and perhaps- as a bonus- a “don’t hit me over the head with it” simple life lesson. Large, easy to read text (for both me and my kids), is always a plus, even if it is more than four words per page. Lastly, if the book features stickers- run away.
- Read what you live. Reading with your kids gives you the chance to relate and discuss things that you enjoy together in everyday life with what you are reading. I think professional educators call this “text to self.” Whatever- it makes reading time more fun and engaging, and relatable to what you enjoy (but may not always have time to do) with your kids. My six-year-old and I enjoy a good doughnut once in a while (or maybe more often) and so what more riotous and relevant read than Laurie Keller’s graphic tale of “Arnie the Doughnut” (2003, Harry Holt and Co.). We are in the process of building our own model railroad layout, largely inspired (at least in my mind) by Elisha Cooper’s beautifully illustrated book, “Train” (2013, Scholastic (surprise) ). It doesn’t matter if your (and your kids) real life interests involve sports, pets, music, fishing, or square dancing. With some research, you are sure to find a good piece of children’s fiction that will grab your collective interest. New baby in the house? No problem. There are hundreds of “New Baby in the House” books out there. (Although, as a cautionary note, only a small fraction of them- in my experience and opinion- are worth reading; see my note #1 above). Moving to a new city? We’re not, but Judith Viorst’s “Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move” (1995, Antheam) is still one of our favorite reads this month.
- All the world (or at least the armchair) is a stage. I will admit that I am a closet thespian. You may be too. It’s OK to admit it; nobody is watching. Reading to your kids gives you a chance to ham it up and fulfill that dream that was once crushed when you weren’t cast for the leading role in your high school musical (no bitterness here). Use character voices and act out suspenseful or humorous narratives. Think of it as Karaoke night, every night, without the five-dollar draft pitchers. Nobody is listening, except your kids, and they will be the most impressed and appreciative audience that you will ever have. More importantly, it will engage them in reading and make the act of reading enjoyable for all. Recite some passages or talk about the book you read the previous night, at the dinner table or while driving in the car. It will impress upon your kids that reading is not just about sitting for 15 minutes in a chair, but that it is pervasive throughout their day-to-day lives.
- Your local library. If your house is like mine (and it probably is), you have a precious few moments to spend reading to your kids. You don’t want to spend all of that time hunting for a good book to read, especially if you have to sift through a pile of book-of-the-month coaster books. I now keep a wicker basket next to our favorite comfy chair stocked with our favorite books. (BTW- Just to be clear, iPad, Kindle, and Nook (although Dr. Seuss might think so) are not books). If you can afford to create your own hand-picked selections, that’s great. Otherwise, we interleave our own books with library picks for the month. Keep a supply ready at hand and swap them out every other month or so.
- Do the math. If you like math and statistics (and I sure do), it will be easy to realize that reading to your kids for just fifteen minutes each day will mean that by the time they reach high school, they will have read a billion books, enough books stacked to reach the moon and back- or something like that. (I said I liked math and statistics; not that I was good at it- see my note about reading above). The point is: if you are invested in reading, if you do the prep work, if you embrace it as if it were a game of golf, if you practice it as a daily ritual like flossing (at least for some of us), you can do so much good for your children in such a small amount of time each day (even if you don’t have time to build that log cabin).
Teach a child to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a child to throw a baseball, and maybe you can get them signed with the majors. Teach a child the love for reading and you ensure a lifetime of personal growth and success no matter what they choose to do. Come on- be a man!