You can boil down the job of being a parent to just a few fundamentals if you think about it. You have to feed them. You need to give them clothes, especially if there’s snow on the ground. You have to keep them safe or all that food and clothing will go to waste. You need to let them know you love them or they will not grow up to be happy people. You need to talk to them and with them, so they learn how language works. And you need to read to them.
I was at the bank yesterday, and the nice, chatty teller remembered that I work at the library and asked me what I do. As soon as I said I was in charge of the children’s department, she got a huge smile on her face, and started telling me about her two daughters. One is an astrophysicist; the other is a vet specializing in radiology. “I am certain that they are what they are because I read to them every day,” she continued. She went on to recite a string of book names–Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Madeline–and she recalled how one of her daughters always got enormous eyes at the part when Miss Clavell sits up in bed and says, “Something is not right!” The mother had read that book to them a hundred times over, but every time, the little girl couldn’t wait to find out what could be wrong in Miss Clavell’s school. It was a new story to her once again, with that arc of beginning, middle, and end.
That time that they sat together every single night and read, they experienced those stories as a family, hearing them told in their mother’s voice. When you do that for your child, you are building a bedrock of love and language and human experience that sticks with you for life. I’m not opposed to electronic versions of picture books–some of them are kind of amazing in the ways they extend the story. But I don’t think they are a substitute for that shared interaction where YOU are reading to your child, in your voice, and you are looking at the pictures, and you are all deeply engaged in the experience. I think my friendly bank teller was right, and that part of the reason her daughters have their remarkable science careers is the cozy time spent reading every single night that helped them grow the kind of roots that enabled them to reach out and explore the world. It obviously also built memories for her that bring her great joy now that her little girls are grown-ups.
So here is my advice to young and future parents. Have your Kindle and your iPad and your Nook, and load them up with some great apps, and have fun. But every day, put aside the screens and clear the schedule and gather around some books. Make them books that are worth reading instead of dumb TV tie-ins that you hate to read, and the experience will be one that will change all of you in wonderful ways.